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The weekly Protocol patent roundup is here, which means it's time to kick back, relax and read about the zany things Big Tech now holds patents for.
There are a few trends that emerged this week that reflect some of Big Tech's ambitions: Google is interested in making voice assistants more useful, Amazon is trying to revolutionize shipping, Apple has some well-crafted gadgets, and Microsoft wants to make computing a little easier. And then there's Facebook, which was light on patents, but wants us all to see movie trailers customized to what we love.
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.
If you've ever had the misfortune of having to try to read your doctors' handwritten notes, you'll know that anything that can take the pen out of their hands and onto a screen would be super helpful. That's basically what Google is envisioning in this patent: an AI assistant that could listen in to doctors' appointments, taking down notes on everything the doctor and patient say. The system could generate a transcript in real time, and it could also pull out important keywords; if the patient said they felt feverish and had a sore leg, it would collate those as symptoms for the doctor to follow up on. Other startups are working on similar ideas, but they don't have the weight of Google's AI prowess behind them — or the stigmas, for that matter.
It's pretty amazing that there are tiny devices that I can wear in my ears that allow me to talk to a virtual assistant that can call me a car, respond to my texts or answer my random questions. That being said, it's still extremely awkward to talk to virtual assistants in public — if you're wearing something like a pair of AirPods and start talking to Siri while you're on the subway, you look like you're talking to yourself. But this new patent might help, with the idea being that you could pull out your phone and talk to your assistant like you were taking a call, rather than yelling into the ether. The phone would recognize the specific motion you did to invoke the assistant while pulling it up, and trigger it right away. It's a neat idea, but I think my favorite part of this patent is that the diagram seems to suggest this suited man is in an infinite loop or looking for coffee. I guess on a long enough scale, though, many of us are.
It might not be the most grandiose invention of all time, but it could have a big impact on the environment, given how many packages Amazon ships a day. The idea is simple: Many mailer envelopes are plastic on the inside and paper on the outside, which many recycling facilities can't process, sending them to the junk heap. Amazon's patent is for a flexible, all-cardboard model that uses various interconnected slats of cardboard to provide the cushioning on the inside of the package. Another green-friendly alternative: getting off your butt and going to the store for that dishwasher detergent.
The future of package delivery looks a lot like high-tech Lego. Amazon's patent outlines a completely modular drone system, where every single aspect of the drone can be removed as needed. The system could act as a sort-of checklist to ensure a drone is ready before being deployed for a delivery, and it wouldn't take too much of a imagination jump to see an automated process in which a package makes its way down a conveyor belt, where it's attached to the drone's avionics unit, then its battery, then its propellor system, and then sent off on its way to your house. It could also cut down on repair costs: Instead of having to pull a whole drone out of operation if something's broken, you could just swap out the necessary part. Like I used to do when one of the Lego bricks went missing.
Apple has been leading the charge of replacing passwords with biometric information (mainly, the details of your face) for a few years now, but this patent would be taking things deeper — literally. It outlines using "subepidermal features" — like the shape of your veins — to figure out if it's really you trying to unlock your phone. The patent suggests that this would be useful for more easily discerning truly identical twins, but I could see it also being helpful for the time we're all in now. The number of times I've recently tried to use Apple Pay while wearing a mask and not understanding why it wasn't working is … far too high. Maybe tech like this could help my phone realize it's me without my having to take my mask off. I also wanted to share this patent for the terrifying imagery it contains:
This patent from Apple seems a lot like what it would look like if the company had released its own version of a Microsoft's Kinect motion-tracking sensor. The device in the patent tracks the gesticulations of the user in front of it, translating them into actions on the computer screen. It just so happens that Apple actually bought PrimeSense, the company originally behind the Kinect technology, back in 2013. It's reportedly been using the technology in its Face ID software (without the aforementioned veins), but it's possible that it could be working on some new ways of interacting with its other devices. And flailing wildly at my Apple TV would be a big improvement over the Apple TV remote, to be honest.
This is just a design patent for the cabinets Apple has started using in its retail stores, but it's very nice. I think it would look nice in my living room with my TV on top of it.
In a world — where Mike Murphy wants to go see this specific movie, only one man is up for the task. Hopefully the final product would be a little better than this, but Facebook is exploring the possibility of creating personalized trailers for movies and TV shows, playing up the parts of the content that the viewer of the trailer might be more interested in. If it's a buddy-cop race car movie, perhaps they would show one person more explosions, another person fast cars, and another some witty banter between partners where one is just one day away from retirement. Whatever the producers — and Facebook's algorithm — would think most appropriate.
Have you ever wished your pointy device were more like another pointy device? Your (extremely specific) prayers may be answered soon. Microsoft is apparently exploring what it would be like to put some sort of mouse cursor on the end of a stylus, seemingly rather like the red nub found on ThinkPad laptops. You could hold the stylus in your hand and use the mouse with your thumb, which might be useful if you're giving a presentation and need to point to something onscreen. Though it doesn't seem like this would be easier than, you know, just bringing a mouse along with you as well.
If you're anything like me, you often start another Google Doc or Word file because you don't want to your co-workers to see you go through the extremely awkward and arduous process of writing your dumb sentences until they absolutely have to, and then copying that text in a big block back into the collaborative doc you're all working on. But Microsoft's new patent could make things a little easier — and not leave you with hundreds of abandoned documents in your cloud folder: It envisions building in a privacy mode for each collaborator so they can all work in the same document, without anyone else having to see. It's a self-deprecator's dream!
Following last week's patent, Microsoft is back with another patent for a blood pressure monitor built into a wearable. Is there a product on the horizon, or is this just securing old research? Either way, it's making my chest tight.
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.