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Some of the patents awarded to Big Tech this week seem to yearn for that long-ago time when we could convene for meetings in offices or would even be commuting to and from work. Hopefully it won't be long before everyone is able to enjoy the mundanities of normal life again, and these patents will make some of those things a little easier.
And remember: Companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.
If you've ever used a Nest thermostat, you'll know they work quite well but require you to be relatively handy to install them. Many houses, especially older ones and those in Europe, don't rely on electronic thermostats, instead using bimetallic strips that react to temperature changes to turn on boilers. Good luck controlling those with your phone. Nest wants to fix that, with a patent that outlines a simpler-to-install thermostat. It would plug into the existing sensors in the wall, as well as a power socket. You'd also connect up a wireless receiver to the boiler, which would tell it to turn up or down the heat. It could be a simple way to bring old homes into the future.
The idea of always-connected devices streaming always-updated apps to phones isn't necessarily new, but the logistics, connectivity and security have always been issues. Google seems to be thinking about a way to make them work as "ephemeral apps," where a user would download a shell for an app to their phone, but the content of the app actually lives on a cloud. This would mean the device would require far less storage space, which could make them cheaper to produce. According to the patent, it could also make it easier for IT managers to revoke or grant access to specific apps as employees need them.
If you ever call my voicemail, you'll hear my message … saying that I don't listen to voicemail. I tell people this is because it's easier for me to manage email messages, but it's also because I'm extremely lazy. It seems that I might not be the only one: This new patent from Google looks at how AI can be used to summarize voice messages. The system would automatically pull out the pertinent information, like when someone recites a phone number to call them on or a location to check out, and then the app you're using would allow you to call that number directly or pull that location up on a map. It'd be a huge boon for extremely busy lazy people like me.
This new patent seems designed to bring the tracking technology found in Amazon Go stores to the company's warehouses. It outlines a camera-tracking system that can determine who workers are by looking at their faces and clothes and monitor their progress through the warehouse floor, into break rooms and even to the bathroom (though it doesn't suggest following them in there). The cameras could also see what products workers are picking off shelves and where they're taking them, which would help Amazon keep better track of its inventory and warehouse efficiency. But it might also create an unsettling panopticon where Amazon employees have little place to hide from the all-seeing eye of their bosses.
If you've used third-party Alexa apps, you've probably had the problem where you ask Alexa quickly to do something else, and she "forgets" that you were using the other app. Fixing this problem, and giving Alexa a better memory, is something Amazon is apparently working on. This patent outlines a system where, for example, someone using a cooking app on Alexa could say, "Alexa start a timer for 5 minutes," and the assistant will do that. Right now, Alexa may then just stay silent after completing the task, but in the situation in the patent, it would remember to return on the cooking app the user was using before. Then again, if Amazon could just get its drone delivery program off the ground, maybe I could have ordered some takeout instead of having to rely on Alexa for cooking help.
Speaking of which: Amazon is back with yet another way of trying to keep people — and the things they order — safe during drone deliveries. While the division may be struggling to deliver on Bezos' 2013 promise of superfast drone deliveries for Prime members, it's still working on ways of getting those products to them. Eventually. This new patent suggests creating delivery packages that can inflate as they drop to earth, presumably to avoid potentially injuring anyone or anything on the way down. It's like that famous James Bond gadget, but for the stick of deodorant you really needed right away.
Apple's ecosystem of smart home devices has gotten pretty robust in recent years, but any automation in those smart home systems has to be set up by the user. I have it rigged so that when my iPhone leaves my apartment, the Home app will turn off all the lights, but I haven't yet set one up to turn them all on when I get back. This new patent suggests a more intelligent version of the app that could suggest automations. It gives the example of someone who always uses the smartphone to close their garage door when they come up at night, and turn on the lights in their kitchen when they walk into the kitchen. In an ideal world, the smart home system would recognize the repeated actions and build an automation for the user. Then again, that user probably isn't going into work anymore, so nobody will be testing this one for a while.
This new patent from Facebook envisions a zany wheeled robot device that could drive through water, if needed. The main innovation here is putting all the moving parts above the wheels, presumably keeping the entire drive mechanism above any water or other terrain the bot would be going through. But the craziest part of the patent is the last diagram, where two of these bots have been snapped together with a chair and some giant arms, so a person could scoot around and pick things up with their amphibious vehicle. The arms seem like an extension from the high-fiving robot Facebook patented a few weeks ago, but I'm not entirely sure what Facebook could be envisioning using these gangly robots for — maybe making sure we're all staying 6 feet apart?
If you're in tech, you have probably heard of Clubhouse — and maybe even tried to invest in it. (For the uninitiated, it's a social network for short audio clips.) And in true Facebook fashion, the company seems to have patented its own spin on the idea, much like it's done for every other social network that's come along in recent years. The patent, in Facebook's defense, does offer a few ways in which its audio-only social network might actually be useful: for those who are visually impaired and those who may be shy to write long posts on Facebook but may be more willing to dictate them. But I'm not sure how many of those there are, given the treatises I've seen all over Facebook..
Collaboration software can get a bit overwhelming, with people drawing over other people and everyone talking over each other. Microsoft's new patent is aimed at tying a person's identity to what they're sharing on a connected whiteboard or computer display. In the system, a user's personal phone would connect over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to the computer powering the display, and a camera would track their motion relative to the display. This would allow people to show up to a meeting room, and the system would automatically know who is who. The cameras would also be able to tell if a user passed their device to someone else to show them something: If that second person started writing something for the big display, it would have their name attached to it. This may make collaboration software a little easier to use, but that seems like a problem for a far away time when we're all back in offices having meetings together. Remember conference room meetings? I actually miss them now.
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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.