Power

Amazon wants to blanket the world in beacons that fall to the Earth like maple seeds

Plus better voice assistants, keyboards on your fingers, a blood-pressure monitor from Microsoft and other patents from Big Tech.

Amazon patent drawing

Amazon's patent is like a very futuristic version of the breadcrumbs in "Hansel and Gretel."

Image: Amazon/USPTO

It's that time of the week again! No, not when you realize you're more than halfway through the weekend already (but hey, what are weekends these days?) — it's time for some zany patents from Big Tech. There were a few themes that emerged this week: Both Google and Amazon are looking at ways to make voice assistants more conversational, and Facebook and Microsoft are exploring how AR changes the way we interact with the world in the future. And then there's tossing location-tracking beacons shaped like maple seeds from drones — there's really only one company doing that.

And remember: Companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Alphabet

Voice assistant arbitrage

If you've ever used a voice assistant speaker like an Echo or a Google Home, you know it can be a bit of a hassle to access additional services, especially if you're trying to compare one versus another, like calling a ride from Lyft or Uber. In Google's new patent, a voice assistant would be able to hold a conversation with its owner, and the AI could dynamically call upon more than one third-party service easily. In the diagram below, the user compares how long it would take to get a large vehicle to come pick him up without having to jump through verbal hoops like, "Hey Google, ask Uber how long it would take an XL ride to get here, and then ask Lyft the same thing."

Making drones quieter

In the long list of things preventing drone deliveries from becoming a regular occurrence in the U.S., this is probably pretty far down the list, but it's extremely annoying nonetheless. Drones are, pretty much without fail, extremely loud, and at usually the right pitch to make you think a swarm of angry bees is hovering just behind you. Imagine how that would feel if there were dozens or hundreds of drones zipping by at all times? Wing's new patent is full of ways to get around that, using hardware on drone propellers that can change the pitch of their buzzing as they approach a delivery drop-off, or even play a series of pitches in a row to make a little melody as the drone lands. It'd be like when your washing machine beeps to let you know it's done, but in flying robot form.

Amazon

Drone-deployed navigation beacons that fall like maple seeds

Do you remember playing with maple seeds as a kid, tossing them into the air and watching them float down to earth like tiny helicopters? Apparently someone in Amazon's engineering team does. This patent outlines small devices that could be dropped from a drone, spinning down to the ground like maple seeds. These devices wouldn't grow into magnificent trees filled with sweet syrup, but instead could act as location-tracking beacons for other drones that may have lost their way, possible because of malfunctioning sensors. It's like a very futuristic version of the breadcrumbs in "Hansel and Gretel."

Alexa, time for a Big Mac

Apparently just like Google, Amazon is working on making its voice assistants more conversational. In its new patent, it outlines situations where a simple question-and-answer function for Alexa wouldn't be enough to answer the user's vague query. In the case of one of the examples drawn out in the patent, a user tells Alexa they're hungry, and then the assistant asks them what they want. Perhaps a little problematically in 2020, its first suggestion is fast food (to which the user only tentatively replies "I guess") and then in a matter of seconds they're off to McDonalds. At least there's all-day breakfast — I guess.

Apple

Keyboards on your fingers?

Typing on tablets or smartphones with glass screens isn't the best feeling and doesn't provide the same tactile response that typing on a keyboard does. It's the reason a small cadre of devoted fans stuck around with BlackBerry long after they should have. But what if instead of bringing a keyboard to your phone, you brought one to your … fingers? This is apparently something Apple is considering, with tiny slip-on wearables for your fingertips that could re-create the sensation of typing even on a glass screen. To be honest, I'd rather just keep tapping away on glass rather than looking like I was playing with snacks.

Measuring yoga

Apple has been building out the types of exercise it supports on its Apple Watch pretty much since day one, and it added support for yoga a few updates ago, but this patent shows how (and what) it's tracking when you're getting into your downward dogs and your sun salutations:

Facebook

AR products

I'm mainly sharing this one because of the wonderfully creepy mustache on the guy in the patent art, but it also shines a light on how Facebook might want to use augmented reality in its advertising products. The patent outlines either acquiring or building digital models of its advertisers' products, and then using AR software to project those products onto the person looking at the ad. In the patent, the user who sees an ad for a new pair of glasses on Facebook could theoretically click on the ad, see the glasses rendered realistically on their face, and buy them, all without leaving the social network. Having worn glasses my whole life, I'm not sure I'd be so quick to make a big decision like that, but then again going off the mustache on the user in question, it seems like he might not always make the best choices anyway.

Microsoft

Blood pressure wearable

Given I've just spent the last few weeks diving deep into the future of health care, this one was pretty interesting to me. Most modern blood-pressure monitors, even the very fancy internet-connected ones, require some sort of cuff to be attached to the wearer's arm to accurately gauge blood pressure. They are far from comfortable to use and not exactly something you could walk around wearing. But Microsoft is apparently looking into a technology called radial tonometry that could replace the cuff with a device worn on the wrist and a patch over the heart. It might not be quite as simplified as what Apple has managed to do to the EKG, but it still seems like something that could be worn around by patients far more easily. And given that heart disease is the biggest killer in the U.S., that could be welcome news.

Augmented reality social networks

If you're like me, you might be great at remembering people's faces, but absolutely horrible at recalling their names. This new patent from Microsoft could be a game-changer for awkward future dinner parties: It outlines an AR system that could allow users to tag people and create social network groups with them, or could recall information about people when seeing them for the first time in person. If you've connected with someone on LinkedIn, for example, and they're at a work event in front of you but you can't just remember a thing about them, you could tap on your AR glasses and pull up their profile without having to look like an idiot and do the "Hey … you!" thing when they approach you and you can't remember your name.

Holographic displays

If you were designing a world-changing augmented-reality system, what would be the first thing you'd want to watch on it? Wizards fighting? Yeah, me, too. Microsoft's patent revolves around the world of head-mounted "near-eye displays" — which sounds a lot like the HoloLens — and the machinations required to mix digital content and the real world. But really the main reason I'm sharing this is that when we all have AR devices that we can use to improve our work and connect with the world in more interactive ways, what we're all really going to want to do is watch a wizard toss a fireball at a bad guy. Which sounds like a great future to me.

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Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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