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If Apple's patent becomes a product, you could take group selfies without having to stand so close together.

Image: USPTO
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Apple has an idea for social-distancing selfies

Plus Alphabet's brain interfaces, vacuum-wrapped top hats, Microsoft's eye-tracker, and other patents from Big Tech.

It has been a very long week, and so I was hoping that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would come through with some zany patents to take my mind off the world. It did — and in a big way, too. This week included some truly mad patents, including Amazon coming up with a way to vacuum-seal top hats for some reason, an iPad that looks like it would survive being run over by a car, a neckband for VR, and inexplicably, the skyline of the City of Brotherly Love. Big Tech had a big week for random patents.

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And remember: Companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Alphabet

Neural interfaces

If you're going to be implanting computer interfaces into someone's brain, I guess you're going to want to make sure you have some way of plugging stuff into them. This new patent from Verily describes a few different models for connecting electrodes and other devices to things that can interact with various parts of the human body. The patent gives examples of existing medical-monitoring devices like blood-glucose and pacemakers, but the idea in the patent would be to connect new devices to monitor the brain, or neurostimulators that deal with chronic pain. Hopefully they're using USB-C ports, because I really don't want to have to buy a dongle for my brain.

Using your environment to change your volume

Countless times a day, I move from one situation to another and the background noise wildly changes in volume and blows out whatever I'm listening to. Or at least that used to happen when I actually went outside. Still, Google's new patent for software that could dynamically adjust the volume of your music based on the ambient sounds around you seems pretty useful. But I think my favorite part of this patent, as a former Philadelphia resident, is the inexplicable inclusion of the Philly skyline in these patent drawings:

Making drones safer for humans and pets

For the second time in as many months, Amazon is looking for ways to deliver packages by drone while avoiding the fate suffered by Enrique Iglesias. This patent outlines a sensor system that would create a "virtual shroud" around the drone, so that any furry friend, child or adult (who should definitely know better) who puts their paws near the moving blades of the propellers wouldn't lose an appendage. The drone would sense the incoming hand and either switch off the rotors near the hand, or all of them. Then again, its patent last month — where the drones would just deliver products by lowering them down on a winch — still seems safer.

Apple

Socially distant group selfies

This patent feels perfect for the time we're living in. You can't be with your friends in person, but that doesn't mean you don't want to pose for great selfies to post on Instagram. Apple has a solution: It outlines software that would operate a bit like a group FaceTime, where one person can invite several people to take selfies, and the software would superimpose them in a different position behind the organizer. This technology seems like it would also be great for families that insist on making Christmas cards long after the kids have moved out.

A zany folding tablet

Have you ever wished your tablet looked more like it was designed by Playskool? You may be in luck. Apple's new patent explores a design for a modular tablet and case that can be manipulated in several different ways to turn it into a more traditional laptop shape, a standalone display and everything in between. The case is a chunky tubular shape, broken out into sections that could be individually manipulated to prop the tablet up in various positions. The case could even hide a stylus in one of its tubes, as well as sensors, or even small displays to show things like battery life and the weather. That's a lot of additional functionality, but seemingly a lot more heft, too:

Facebook

Real-time social data lookup

Facebook is apparently exploring a way of providing social information on a person in real time. Like in so many sci-fi movies, the software would appear in a dialing application, so when you were going to call a person or a business, the app would tell you how you're connected to the person, or how many of your friends like the place. The patent suggests that if you're dialing a friend's number, it would help you check that you're calling the right person, as it would show their profile picture and name — but who wouldn't have their friend's number stored on their phone? It also seems to open up a scenario where someone could just start dialing random numbers to see who's on the other end.

Virtual microphones

This patent outlines software for VR where any of the devices connected to a headset near the wearer could potentially pick up sound, which could be useful if you're moving around in the real world as you move through a VR environment. But what's most interesting about this patent is the pieces of hardware Facebook envisions acting as microphones. There are obvious things, like the (clearly Oculus-shaped) VR headset, but then there are other designs for products that Facebook is toying around with. The patent includes images of connected glasses, a neck band and a wearable that looks a lot like an old Fitbit. It's not clear if these are things Facebook is actively looking at making, or if it's just envisioning a way that other products could connect up to a user's VR experience.

Microsoft

DNA storage

Scientists have been researching ways to store data on DNA for years, as it could potentially provide a way for information to be stored for centuries without power and with minimal degradation. Apparently we're getting closer to turning that idea into a reality, and Microsoft is interested. The patent outlines ways to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to more easily edit data into DNA. Just think, one day we could see the very building blocks of life be used to store something as consequential as Windows 10.

"Random factoid generation"

Who needs a Snapple bottle cap when you have technology. I'm not quite sure why Microsoft is looking into building a piece of software that can generate random facts on command, though the patent suggests it could be fed into a virtual assistant program. I guess that would finally give me a reason to talk to Cortana.

Tracking eye health

This patent feels a little out of left field for Microsoft, but it could potentially be useful for the company's AI health care initiatives. It outlines a measurement system for keeping track of a patient's eye health, which could be used to predict how a patient's conditions develop over time. It gives the example of a child — whose eyes change every year as they grow — who comes in to the optometrist every year for their checkup. The software would note various characteristics of their eyes, and then build a forecast for the doctor to help determine what treatment, if any, they need, and when they should next come in for a checkup. Perhaps while Cortana is deciding if you have glaucoma or astigmatism, it can tell you a random factoid.

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