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It's that time of the week again. Take some time away from your busy Sunday to check out these weird and wonderful patents from Big Tech. As ever, there's a focus on augmented and virtual reality: Amazon is looking for how to advertise in AR, Facebook is looking into AR headphones, and Microsoft wants to turn your phone into a VR controller. And then there's Apple, which just wants to make your car's air conditioning a bit more enjoyable.
And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.
Waymo won a design patent for a "3D sign," with no more information on what it's for in the document. It looks like a little pylon from football games, but it has … something … to do with self-driving cars. From one of the drawings, it looks like maybe a sign to show where you should stand to wait for a car, or where one will drop you off. Perhaps when things get back to normal and people start getting cabs again, we'll find out.
Have you ever tried to pay attention in a meeting while also taking notes? Maybe it's just me, but my brain refuses to think of creative things to say while also taking down what everyone else is saying. So something like what Google's new patent is suggesting would be super useful. The patent suggests a system where the meeting leader could set up a document, and anyone with a calendar event within proximity of their device gets access. They can all contribute to the document together in real time, adding notes together. The document could also suggest ways to make the notes more useful and accessible, easing some of the burden off my slow brain.
The concept behind this patent is pretty well covered at this point: using a virtual assistant listening to a text conversation between two people to suggest restaurants, movies and other things based on the conversation. But I had to share this example conversation in this patent. I don't know if this was written by computers trying to prove they can pass the Turing test or what, but I enjoy a good "movie = relax" and like finding discount on my shopping, too.
If AR becomes big, especially if AR glasses take off, it's almost a certainty that advertisers will glom onto it. When the internet shifted from the desktop to mobile, there was a big question around Google and Facebook's businesses and whether they would be able to shift with it. But that debate has long been settled, and it seems companies are already thinking about the next paradigm. Who isn't excited about the prospect of looking at their hands in AR and seeing banner ads plastered all over them? You'd look like a NASCAR driver at all times. There would be useful applications to technology like this, though, like using your hands as surfaces for controls in AR, but hopefully the ads won't get in the way.
In Amazon's vision of the future, drones are going to be blanketing the sky, delivering packages to us, day in, day out. According to this patent, as these drones proliferate, they could also be used for other purposes while they're flying around. Amazon envisions using the drones' cameras for home surveillance, scanning for things like broken windows and people on a property. Because who wouldn't want the company behind Ring and Rekognition to be scanning for whether you're home all the time?
If the flying surveillance drones weren't enough, Amazon is also looking into how to glean more information out of you from the devices in your house. Using camera and microphone sensors as well as radio-frequency detectors, you could theoretically ask Alexa things like, "Is someone in the living room?" Hopefully you get an answer you're expecting, especially if it's the middle of the night. Otherwise the next thing you're going to be asking Alexa is to call the cops.
Siri is sometimes there for you when you need a light turned on or a playlist shuffled, but it can only help when it has access to the internet. But there's a lot that would be helpful for it to do that wouldn't need the internet. Processors and GPUs are continually getting more powerful and efficient, to the point where the complex task of understanding people's voices can be done without having to call out to the cloud. Now, if someone could just make Siri a little more useful, internet or otherwise.
If you've ever been in a Tesla on a hot day, you've probably noticed that the air conditioning is a little more effective than in the average car. It seems that Apple (for the car it's definitely not maybe working on) might be working on something similar. Instead of having a few vents by the passengers, which never seem to hit you where you want them to (ever had freezing hands while driving and the rest of you is sweltering?), Apple's design, similar to Tesla's, seems to be for one long vent across the entirety of the front of the car, which could be directed exactly where you need air. I feel cooler already.
Facebook's patent revolves around a double-headphone system for AR glasses, relying on traditional earbuds mixed with bone-conduction headphones. But perhaps the most interesting part about this is that Facebook is exploring how its Oculus technology would work in glasses, rather than in a clunky VR headset.
Most VR inputs are wands with triggers on them. That's great for shooting things or chopping people down in VR worlds, but there's a lot of things you probably want to do that don't involve guns or swords. Microsoft is looking into ways to incorporate your cell phone as an input device that you can see in VR. That would allow you to type far easier, and do things like paint VR, if that's what you're into:
- Amazon's working on a less-forgetful Alexa - Protocol ›
- Amazon wants drones to deliver to your home soon - Protocol ›
- Microsoft envisions chatbots that rap - Protocol ›
- Apple files patent for AirPods that won't stick out - Protocol ›
- Apple has an idea for wearables made entirely out of fabric - Protocol ›
- Fewer people are winning patents, and most of them are still men ... ›
Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.