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The weekly Big Tech patent roundup is back with a bumper edition! I took last week off as I was on vacation (I know, I'm sorry, it won't happen again), but thankfully there were more than a few zany patents filed while I was out. Amazon wants us to yell at drones, Apple wants to put protectors on our heads, Facebook is drawing stick figures, and Microsoft just wants to make our video calls a little less unbearable.
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.
Even though it's 2020 and almost everything can be done online, there's still some stuff that requires scanning real documents made of dead trees. One example that was pretty common, at least before lockdown, was receipts for expenses. You've got to scan them into your expenses software and hope that the computer vision picks up what's on the piece of paper. That can mean a lot of lining up edges perfectly. But Google's new patent envisions a system that can detect what's on a piece of paper at any angle, meaning uploading documents would be far easier. If I ever need to go out and do anything ever again, this could be super useful.
If you've watched "Mythic Quest" on Apple TV (I can't be the only one, right?), this patent feels right out of one of my favorite episodes. Either way, Amazon's patent sounds like an absolute godsend for gamers: It suggests tracking users' behavior (especially things like the names they call other players), and then only pairing toxic users with other toxic users, allowing them to get into flame wars to their hearts' content, while leaving normal human beings who also like playing games to just enjoy their lives and games.
"Hey drone, I'm down here, come and get me!" may well be a thing you hear being shouted around suburbs in the future by otherwise sane humans. Amazon's new patent outlines a way that its delivery drones might be able to recognize people they're meant to be delivering packages to. The drones have sensors onboard that could be used for face scanning, or to recognize certain speech commands or gestures (like flailing your arms around) to know you're the person who desperately needed that Brushed Stainless Cuisinart GR-150P1 Griddler Deluxe within 15 minutes.
Apple is apparently looking into some sort of head-worn wearable; rumors have circulated about a pair of Apple Glasses being on the horizon, and given the images in this patent, that seems a possibility. But the patent also outlines what the device might do, including many of the functions already available on the Apple Watch. According to the patent, the headset could track "biometric data and/or health data and/or sleep data and/or mindfulness data" through various sensors. Hopefully we'll look cooler wearing the frames than the guy in the patent, though.
Apple's plans to build a car are about as clear as the back of a Space Gray iPhone 12, but that won't stop it from filing patents on novel car technology ideas. This patent outlines a few ideas for charging an electric car at home. One is rather like a high-tech version of the tennis ball hanging from a string that people use to know how far to pull into their garage: It's a charging port that lines up with a car as it pulls into the garage. The other idea is a charger that can autonomously move into place to plug into a parked car — something that Tesla has been trying to tackle for a while now.
Most voice assistants are pretty unhelpful; you have to clearly enunciate a single command for them and hope they heard and understood you, which is not at all how humans talk. Apple is apparently trying to work on making Siri a little more user-friendly, with this patent suggesting it's looking at ways to allow someone to make several commands at once (even ones that are follow-ups to the first question they ask) and in certain cases, not having to say "Hey Siri" every single time they want it to do something. That could potentially go a long way to making using Siri in public feel a lot less awkward.
A lot of laptops and phones have some sort of sensor on them to scan a part of the body to determine whether it's really you trying to get into the device, but wearables tend not to have the space for them. This patent looks at using the scanners already on a wearable — like the cameras on the bottom of the Apple Watch — to detect patterns in the wearer's veins and skin. Seemingly like fingerprints, those would be unique to every person — and presumably far more difficult to spoof.
This one is just quite funny. The patent outlines a system for projecting 2D objects onto the real world, which seems like a difficult computational challenge, but really I'm just sharing this to ask Apple why this guy is wearing a projector strapped to his head?
We are living through a rather … divisive … time on the internet, and perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than on Facebook. But the company is trying to circumvent misinformation more than in previous years, and that apparently includes AI research to detect whether an image has been Photoshopped. It scans images for comparable parts in very similar images and then basically plays spot the difference. This could definitely help save a few arguments at the dinner table, or you know, an election.
This is a patent that outlines how Facebook envisions its app looking for accounts dedicated to content creation, and the sort of metrics those creators might want to know about their posts, like what's performing well and what's getting engagement. But I think my favorite part of the patent is how phoned in the actual content in the artwork is. Maybe I've missed my calling as a content creator if this is the level out there.
When trying to make plans with someone over text, it can usually involve going to several other apps to get the information you need: Yelp for restaurant recommendations, Google Maps for directions, and maybe a quick peek at Mint to see if you can really afford a five-star joint this week. Microsoft's patent envisions making that process far easier, by detecting what you're talking about in a conversation and making suggestions on what you want to do and the apps you want to use to do them. Perhaps someday soon AI can just organize all my meetings for me.
We're all on Zoom (or should I say Skype, given this is a Microsoft patent?) all the time now, but if you've ever been on a long video call with your laptop unplugged, you'll probably have noticed how much of a battery drain it can be. "The inventors have realised that the layout/configuration of the display of visual information can change immediately in response to events, which can result in frequent and unnecessary change in the rendered display," as the patent puts it. Their solution: Fix the order of people that each person sees on the call, and give them the option to leave them as static images unless they're talking. Unfortunately the patent has no solutions for your colleague who keeps texting during the meeting or doesn't know that he's not on mute.
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.