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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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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.