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Big tech had a pretty big week at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The resounding theme of all the big ideas? Virtual reality, and how to make it better in every way — more real, more interactive, and more available. Two different patents suggest using VR with body sensing electrodes like EEGs, while another wants to use smart home technology to merge the fictional world of books and movies with the actual environment in your living room.
The future is going to be so weird.
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Apple wants us all to dive into the metaverse. The company was awarded a patent for an extremely futuristic-sounding "bionic virtual meeting room." It outlines a system where two or more people could connect in a virtual meeting space, with avatars that match their real-life expressions. This sounds a lot like the reality that Facebook has been trying to push on the world for years, but Apple's patent goes further, suggesting users could be hooked up to EEG or GSR monitors to track electrical activity in the brain or fingers, using the data as inputs to the VR world. Pair this up with Facebook's VR glove from our roundup a few weeks ago, and we'd be well on our way to a "Ready Player One" future.
Two emoji patents!
Apple was recently awarded a patent for some proprietary emoji designs that launched in 2016, which included its designs for water polo players, the monocle-wearing emoji, and the woman in a hijab. But it was also granted a patent for the "memoji" it designed for the poop emoji, animated to match however you move your face. Because that's a thing someone definitely wants.
Going big on 5G, finally
Though Apple's been relatively mum on its 5G ambitions, some suspect its first 5G-capable devices will debut within the year. The company is reportedly working on its own radio architecture, too, which is perhaps not surprising given its purchase of Intel's mobile chip business and its lawsuits with Qualcomm. But the company is clearly thinking about what comes after LTE. It won patents this week for the "attachment of a wireless device to a next generation gateway," along a few recent others. In all, the company has over 200 patents that reference "fifth generation" cellular technology.
Apple has said in marketing copy that the iPhone is "all screen," even though there's a very clear notch at the top of its screen where a bunch of its sensors live, and a small bezel around the device. But the company seems to be working on a device that would be closer to an "all-screen" reality. A patent application was published this week describing a phone with a glass enclosure and display that curves around the front of the phone, with smaller spots for sensors.
Apple famously couldn't figure out how to turn its vision for AirPower into a reality, but that hasn't stopped the company from patenting the idea.
You know those auto-replies in Gmail? Well this patent suggests that Google wants Gmail and Google Calendar to be in better communication so that Gmail will know when you've got something scheduled and can suggest an auto-reply based on your calendar. It would also finally, finally, allow Google Calendar to make automatic appointments in your calendar based on the time of an event suggested in your email.
Talk about interactive entertainment. Amazon's new patent outlines a world where all our mobile devices can automatically detect and interact with each other, to the point where your e-reader (a Kindle, perhaps?) would know that you're reading about an arctic environment, so would tell your smart thermostat to turn the temperature down and your smart lights to fade to blue. The patent even suggests authors adding in this directorial information themselves while writing. There are other pretty off-the-wall suggestions in the patent, such as a smart home suggesting you get a pizza delivery timed exactly to when someone in a movie you're watching gets one delivered, or if you're shopping for a yellow dress, your lights all turn yellow, or if you're watching a movie set on Mars, the lights slowly turn orange. Your whole home becomes part of the entertainment experience.
If you live with other people but ask Alexa something like, "Alexa, when is my next meeting," you've likely heard her respond, "I don't know who's talking." A new patent from Amazon aims to rectify this by using machine learning to differentiate speaking voices. We all have verbal ticks and differences, and the system could learn to tell one person from another, or even use a smart device's built-in camera to see who's in front of them, much like some of Google's newest devices can. Google's home devices can already differentiate voices, but you have to set it up.
It seems like Apple isn't the only company interested in adding sensors to your body in the name of more realistic VR. Facebook also received a patent this week for a head-mounted display system featuring electrodes monitoring "biopotential signals." This could be tracking muscle movements in your face, or an electrooculogram, tracking eye movements. These could be used to mimic facial expressions on a virtual avatar, or just to see where you're looking in the virtual world. Hopefully it'll produce something a lot better than the terrifying cartoons Facebook's last VR world used.
One of the biggest drawbacks of virtual reality is that everything in it is, after all, virtual. If you pick up a boulder in a game, it would feel the same as picking up a feather — there's no way to replicate the weight and shape of real-world objects in VR. Facebook has a new approach to the problem: Its new patent involves gloves that can restrict and move parts of wearer's hands and fingers to make it feel like something they're holding in a game has a shape. It gives the example of putting your fingers around a coffee cup, where the glove would restrict your fingers from touching your palm, much like if you'd wrapped your fingers around a real cup. Hopefully your fingers don't get stuck like that forever.
If you struggle to get over the "1-inch barrier" of subtitles in movies, Microsoft's patent application could be the answer. The company outlines a system that could automatically detect speech in a video, translate it, and dub over the person speaking in the video with the language of your choosing. The system would apparently even be able to match the tonality, speed and inflection of the person speaking.
A common problem with mobile games is that you have to put your hands all over the screen to play them, obfuscating whatever you're trying to play. You can connect a wireless controller, but who wants to carry that around? Microsoft may have a solution: It was awarded a patent for wireless clip-on accessories that you can attach to and control touch-screen devices, without covering the screen up with your thumbs. Carry a couple little extra cubes in your pocket could be a far easier solution to mobile gaming than some of the ideas out there right now.
How many meetings have you sat in — often after a big lunch — where you're struggling to stay awake, let alone add anything productive? Microsoft is looking into whether it would be possible to build a meeting scheduler that more accurately blocked off time based on when employees were actually alert. The software idea would use some assumptions — like that many people are less attentive right after lunch or late in the evening, or that budget meetings might be more important than a weekly team checkup — to determine when to schedule a meeting. The patent even suggests making employees perform "various cognitive tasks or attention-based exercises" over multiple days to figure out when they're usually most with it. This definitely doesn't sound like software companies would want to use to figure out when someone's usually slacking off.
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.