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Microsoft won a patent recently for a way to open tunnels to the real world from within VR.

Photo: Getty Images Europe
Power

Facebook eyes a VR glove and Amazon wants the floor to track you

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things. Most never amount to anything, but others end up defining the future.

This week we found patents for Amazon floor tiles that track you, an Apple sensor for sensing everything, a Facebook VR glove, and a bunch of other ideas from the big tech companies.

Apple

Autonomous vehicles learning how to park

Here's an interesting application for driverless vehicles from … Apple? We might not know exactly what the company's ambitions in autonomy are, or how much progress it's made in robot cars, but a new patent out of Cupertino shows some smart thinking. Parking lots can be treacherous, with people popping out behind parked cars, and other parkers trying to pull into the same spot. Apple's new patent application suggests a self-driving car could figure out what spots are free based on other cars' blinkers.

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Sensing the world

Apple was awarded a patent for what sounds like a sensor for everything. This theoretical sensor could include a microphone, as well as "a temperature sensor, a pressure sensor, a humidity sensor, a gas sensor, or other sensors or combinations of sensors for sensing attributes of the environment." So, nothing particularly grand then.

iClothes!

In what seems like a catch-up move to Google's Project Jacquard, Apple was awarded a patent for flexible circuitry that could be "laminated between fabric layers." Google sells jackets and bags with companies like Levi's and Yves Saint Laurent with flexible connected circuitry onboard, though the technology is limited to changing the track on a song or answering a call, if a phone is connected to the clothing. Apple's patent suggests the tech could be in furniture. Who needs to find the tiny Apple TV remote when your entire couch can be your clicker?

'Foveated' virtual reality

Apple is pushing harder into VR, and it seems like it's looking into ways to make the experience a little more interesting. This application appears to be for a bokeh-like effect for VR, where software creates in-focus focal points for the eyes of the VR headset wearer, blurring the background beyond.

Amazon

Floor tiles that track your movements

If it wasn't enough to be surveilled by the myriad AI cameras in an Amazon Go store, the company is apparently weighing up the possibility of the floors themselves tracking you as you move from tile to tile in a store. The patent suggests Amazon could use the technology to figure out when patrons pick up products in a store and put them back down in the wrong place. No indication of whether the floor tiles light up like the "Billie Jean" music video as you walk around.

Reconfigurable delivery drones

Amazon has been working on delivering things by drones for close to a decade now, but it's yet to really move beyond the testing phase. A new patent could change how quickly the company can build up new drones, though: It outlines a modular system where drones could be simply and quickly constructed from uniform parts, and where the drones could have four, eight or more propellers, depending on the need. Just like the various multipacks of Charmin it sells.

Drones that don't overheat

Amazon also recently won a patent for a drone cooling system, as these flying computers can generate a fair amount of heat from their batteries, onboard sensors and processors, and obviously the motors keeping them in the air. Probably important that a delivery drone doesn't burst into flames after completing a drop-off.

… an envelope

Not all patents are for wildly innovative technologies; sometimes you're just mailing it in. Many companies file patents to ensure their unique designs remain theirs, and that can be as simple as the design of the envelope they send out to customers, which is just what Amazon did this week.

Microsoft

Mirror, mirror on the wall …

Microsoft's recent patent for a "telepresence device" envisions a picture-size display that could be used to hold conversations that approximate face-to-face chats. The company already sells the massive Surface Hub 2 displays, which can be mounted on the wall (but require an unsightly webcam to video chat in 4K), so it's not much of a leap to see how this platform could be used to make video calls a little more pleasant. Or how you might find out more about a young rival who's recently taken up living with seven dwarves.

Portals into another world

Say you're playing a VR game and you're dying of thirst, what do you do? Pull off the VR headset, ruining the experience, or fumble around for your drink and knock it onto your water-cooled gaming rig? Microsoft's new patent posits a better way: using sensing tech to open "portals" into the real world so you can hunt around for items you might need, without leaving the environment you're in. Or you could just use Microsoft's HoloLens instead, perhaps.

Alphabet

Ouch

Google didn't really have anything interesting that it won patents for this week, but its Alphabet sister company Verily did win one for injecting tiny computers laden with sensors into our bodies. The tiny wireless devices are apparently so small "to allow painless injection." I will not be first in line to find out if that's true.


This figure demonstrates Facebook's vision for a wearable device with magnetic field generators.Screenshot: USPTO

Facebook

Facebook spectacles?

The social network has won a few patents over the last couple weeks for some of the more practical aspects of the virtual-reality headsets it produces through its Oculus division. There's one for the cushioning of a head-mounted display, and another for how displays close to your eyes render, to name a few. But it also won a few patents that suggest its work on augmented-reality glasses, announced at last year's Oculus Connect conference, is underway. It won one patent for perceiving depth with head-mounted cameras, and another for the lenses of a glasses-based AR setup. Perhaps we'll hear more at F8 about what it'll be like to wear Facebook on our faces wherever we go.

VR glove

If you've ever wished you'd felt more like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" when interacting with the world, you may soon be in luck. Facebook won a patent this week that describes using magnetic-field sensors embedded in a glovelike wearable that would allow someone to interact with an AR or VR system with more dexterity. Most current VR setups require you to hold onto some wands with triggers attached, but it seems like Facebook wants to create something a little more natural. The glove would have magnets in each finger, allowing the system to figure out their location in relation to each other. Perhaps soon, we'll all be gesticulating wildly in VR, like conductors leading a virtual orchestra.
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