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Apple has an idea for wearables made entirely out of fabric

Plus smart syringes, connected T-shirts, nanoparticle-detecting wearables, and other patents from Big Tech.

Apple's patent for fabric wearables

Apple seems to be exploring other, less fragile ways of building wearables.

Image: USPTO

It feels like I've been doing these weekly patent roundups for an eternity now, but that's mainly because the pandemic has completely destroyed my concept of time. But regardless, every so often, a week comes along that shows how many amazing (and sometimes plain crazy) ideas these companies are working on. We have smart syringes and wearables that can detect magnetic particles in your bloodstream from Alphabet, T-shirts that can show texts from Microsoft, and smart floors from Amazon. What a time to be alive.

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.

Alphabet

Smart syringes

So many things terrify me about going to the doctor, but relatively high up on that list is a technician inadvertently injecting me with air instead of a vaccine, leading to an embolism and my death. I just try not to think about it, but Verily is apparently trying to do something about it with this patent for smart syringes. They would be able to detect and ping a health care worker's device if a syringe wasn't primed with an "air shot," which is used to get bubbles out of the fluid in the syringe. I would very much be a fan of this technology seeing the light of day.

Medical wearables

Wearables are quickly moving step-tracking devices to products that can potentially diagnose life-threatening illnesses, and it seems Verily's concept for a medical wearable is just that. Verily already has a watch that it offers to collect research data for its projects, but this is seemingly a step beyond that. The patent even suggests introducing "magnetic nanoparticles" into the wearer's body that the wearable would be able to sense and use to derive "clinically relevant" information, like whether someone is at an increased risk of a stroke or gangrene.

Amazon

Smart floors

Everything in the house is getting smart — but what about your floors? Amazon's new patent outlines a way of letting people into facilities without access gates, where smart tiles on the floor and connected devices on the user could talk to each other to determine whether that person has the right credentials. In one example in the patent, the floor tile would actually connect directly to the smart device by using the person's body as a circuit to connect the two. Hopefully the voltage wouldn't need to be very high.

Building drones out of shape memory materials

I always thought it was extremely cool that "The Dark Knight's" Batman had a cape that could turn into a rigid wing with a small electric charge. It seems that Amazon is trying to turn the Caped Crusader's sci-fi concept into something useful: Its patent describes using shape memory materials in the actuators on drone propellers to allow the drone to fly in different ways. It could also make the drone less prone to failures, as there would be fewer moving parts needed. It's not quite as impressive as taking down foes in Gotham City, but it might help packages get to you a little quicker.

Apple

Time to learn a new word

This isn't one of Apple's most revolutionary patents — it's for the design of the way it wraps its charging cables — but it taught me a new word, so I thought you might want to know it, too. Apparently when you loop up a cord, that's called hanking, and that's all this patent is for, a "hanked cable." Apparently the word comes from the old Norse hǫnk, which would be way better to say, in my opinion.

Fabric wearables

The Apple Watch is great, until you trip and smack the glass face into a door jamb or the battery swells up and explodes the face. Apple seems to be exploring other, less fragile ways of building wearables. It won a patent this week for an entirely fabric wearable that could have lights embedded to display information. It could also be used to tether another device to your hand, the patent suggests, which would probably be helpful if iPhones keep getting bigger. Apple also won a patent for fabric sensors, which could help it embed some of the Watch's existing tech into a more flexible device in the future.

Facebook

Tracking you on other social networks

Given that Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp, it wouldn't be wildly surprising to learn that it could connect your disparate profiles together to get a more complete picture of who you are. But what about sites it doesn't own? This patent outlines a tracking system that could determine, based on the information that Facebook already has on you, whether you have profiles on other social or shopping sites. It could compare your profile photos, as well as demographic information it has, to link them together. You abandoned your cart on Target or posted a photo of flowers on Flickr? Prepare yourself for an ad on Facebook for a flowery dress from Target!

Scraping other sites for information

In a similarly themed patent this week, Facebook also outlined a technical model for scraping information off of a webpage and onto its sites. This could be to advertise directly to you when a company adds a new product that it thinks might appeal to you. And personally, I can't wait to buy Coat House's Iridescent Stadium Jacket from Big Company.

Microsoft

Shirts that say how you feel

Have you ever wished you could express yourself with the clothes you wear? I don't mean vibrant colors or crazy fashions, but literally communicating how you feel. Apparently that's something Microsoft is exploring. This patent is for a textile with LEDs and fiber-optics woven in that can be controlled to display text or images. Who needs Facebook status updates when you can just wear your heart emoji on your sleeve?

Calorie-counting the food you buy

Have you ever wished Siri could shame you into eating better? Probably not, but this new idea from Microsoft could maybe help you eat a bit better. The patent suggests a system that ties into a virtual assistant, which would have nutritional info from food vendors as well as access to your purchase history. Whenever you bought something, the assistant would be able to tell you how many calories you've consumed, and whether that aligns with health goals you've set, like losing weight, and any health issues you have. It could also recommend suggestions for healthier food from restaurants you go to, but chances are, if you ordered a breakfast burrito, you made a very conscious choice not to have something healthy like oatmeal for breakfast, so I'm not sure how persuasive an assistant is likely to be in this situation.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

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Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

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