Get access to Protocol
Happy Sunday! Grab some coffee, take a load off and enjoy the day with some patents from Big Tech.
This week saw a pretty wide range of ideas from the big companies in the U.S., but many of them seem to be focused on using digital assistants to make life a bit easier. Microsoft wants to help you remember where you put your keys; Google wants to remind you of how much you're spending on lunch; and Apple wants you to know if you've cracked your windshield. All things that could take a little load off of your mind.
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.
How hard is it to keep track of how much you've spent or where you've been in a given week? Considering I can't remember what I even had for breakfast yesterday, I'd say it can be quite hard. People are increasingly taking snaps of everything in their lives, and Google is interested in actually pulling key information out of those photos.
In this patent, you ask a virtual assistant how much you've spent over the week, and the assistant could pull photos of all the receipts you took that week, read the totals of all of them, and add them together. That could be super useful for people who have to do a lot of expenses, or are just extremely forgetful, like me.
This isn't really new but an interesting ownership discovery. Last year, Verily partnered with Pampers to create a suite of baby-monitoring products, including a connected camera. In the release at the time, Verily said it designed the sensor and software technology stack, but it seems it also holds the actual design patent for the camera.
Amazon has built some of the most complex product-storage and fulfillment warehouses in the world, but they generally take up a ton of space, existing in massive footprints in areas where land is cheap. But that isn't always the most effective way to get products to consumers in densely populated areas. Micro-fulfillment setups, often involving complex conveyor belts and robots, have started to take off recently, and it seems that Amazon is looking to join in the trend.
This patent outlines an expandable conveyor-belt storage system that can use robots to sort and pack their moving shelves. It could be a way for the company to get products closer to the people it's delivering to, in smaller spaces than it's usually occupied.
Would you be more willing to buy something if you got a discount on it for solving a puzzle? That seems to be something Amazon is exploring in its latest patent. It outlines a function on a shopping site, or through voice assistants and texts, where you could win a percentage off the cost of an item you're searching for by solving a puzzle about the item or the store. It could be something like what shoes a celebrity is wearing in a photo, or what was the last thing you bought off the site. The idea would be to drive further loyalty to the company and, of course, sell some more stuff.
It's super dangerous to drive around with a cracked windshield, but sometimes tiny cracks are difficult to notice. Apple's new patent — for a vehicle it's definitely maybe probably not potentially for sure working on — wants to fix that. A system built into the windshields and other windows on a car would be able to take electrical measurements of the surface of the glass to spot any deficiencies and then alert the driver to get it fixed. I wonder if Apple cars would also be made out of glass that definitely needs a protective case on it at all times to keep them safe.
Have you ever wished the inanimate objects around your home were more interactive? Apparently Apple has. The company's new patent outlines a way of adding electrical sensors to woven fabrics, allowing you to use them to control a computer. In some examples in the patent, the applications sound pretty familiar to Google's Jacquard project, although the patent suggests also being able to do things like use the connected fabric to control your computer's cursor, rather than just control the music on your phone.
But other implementations suggest adding the tech into "a cloth, rug, tapestry, upholstery or other fabric-based article"; I could see a future Apple rug that knows to turn on the lights when someone steps on it for the first time that day, or a couch with a dimmer switch built in. It's a brave new world where our furniture may one day need system updates.
If you've ever uploaded a bunch of photos to Facebook from a holiday, you've probably left it up to your followers to figure out what you actually did on vacation, rather than write a description for your whole trip. No one has time for that. But a new patent from Facebook wants to help you out, with a system that could create a narrative out of the shots you upload. Conversely, it could also help select photos, based on your tastes (from what you've liked and shared on the social network), for a post that you've drafted. Perhaps it won't be long until all our creativity is outsourced to algorithms.
We love to say that voice assistants are always listening to us, but sometimes that can actually be pretty useful. Microsoft's patent suggests using voice assistants' always-on function to track things around your house that you might've forgotten. How many times have you misplaced your keys or forgotten whether you locked the front door? Microsoft suggests training an algorithm on the sounds of common household objects and events — like dropping the keys on the counter or locking a door — and then using those sounds' proximity to smart speakers to log them as events, which a user could then ask about. Alexa may soon be able to tell you where you last left your keys, or Google could tell you whether you left the oven on, solving some of the anxieties everyone tends to face in daily life.
This is one of the rare enterprise uses of blockchain technology that sounds promising. Microsoft's patent envisions IoT devices to track products' movements along a supply chain and ensure they're meeting the standards agreed upon by the companies involved. The patent lays out the example of an IoT device that's loaded with an immutable smart contract agreed upon by the shipper and the customer that states the shipper's freezer container can't get warmer than a certain temperature. The second the temperature threshold is breached, the contract is breached, alerting everyone involved. This would ensure that produce being shipped is actually being done so safely — and that all the chicken I buy (which is a lot) won't kill me.
If you've ever used a computer stylus, you've probably noticed that it can't really replicate the feeling of actually drawing on paper with a pen. Microsoft's new patent doesn't want to: Instead of trying to replicate it, it suggests adding a digital element to a physical pen, using a connected cartridge that could be inserted into a regular pen. You'd be able to write or draw like normal, but have what you're doing be captured digitally. It's the best of both worlds.
- Amazon's working on a less-forgetful Alexa - 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 ... ›
- Microsoft wants to record your emotions - Protocol ›
- Alphabet wants you eat balloons instead of dieting - Protocol — The people, power and politics of tech ›
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.