Apple wants to make phones work underwater
Inflatable boxes, insect traps, infinite crossword puzzles and other patents from Big Tech.
Hello and welcome to the last edition of the Big Tech patent roundup! Sadly as you read this, I'll have moved on from Protocol, but I couldn't head out without doing one more patent roundup. It just didn't feel right. So this is a bumper issue, with zany patents like an inflatable box from Amazon, underwater iPhones and insect traps from Microsoft. Hopefully these are enough to tide you over for … forever.
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.
Have you ever been to a diner with a giant, pages-long menu that has pictures of all their best sellers? They definitely make choosing easier, but it also makes the menu as long as the bible. This new idea from Google could make things simpler: The patent outlines a system for using codes on regular menus that could be scanned and, through a phone's camera, use AR to show what each dish looks like, without having to take up all the space on the menu. Assuming we ever go back to paper menus, that is.
I could see this being really useful to Taylor Swift fans right now. Say you've just mainlined "You Belong With Me" but realize it's the version that Taylor Swift no longer owns, so the streaming service you're listening on recommends you listen to the new "Taylor's Version," along with some other great covers of it. That's basically the gist of this patent: finding covers of songs you love that you might also enjoy. It's also a great way to find new artists similar to ones you already love.
Have you ever tried to write a program? Chances are if you're a Protocol reader, you might have. It's quite difficult! It's the reason programming is such a specialized, in-demand profession. But advances in natural-language understanding and processing could mean that it's not long before anyone with an idea can turn it into an app. That's basically what this patent suggests, using a system that can understand simple commands, and turn them into a program people can use. One of the examples given is to streamline a company's order process, tracking all orders and flagging complicated ones as high priority, which a person describes to the system, and it executes — no coding knowledge required.
If you are addicted to crosswords, and finish the ones in your daily paper before your morning coffee, perhaps this patent could be for you. It envisions a system that can auto-generate crossword puzzles based on the headlines of the day, primarily using the proper nouns that the software finds in news articles. Given how much seems to be going on every single day these days, this could mean there's a near-endless stream of puzzles to satiate even the most ardent cruciverbalists.
Are party lines still a thing? I guess that's basically what Clubhouse is, just in a $4 billion app. If you want to recreate that vibe at home, sitting on the couch and not feeling like reaching for your phone, perhaps in the future you'll be able to just call on Alexa. You can already do a voice call to anyone with an Alexa-enabled device, but this patent envisions being able to add others to your call, much like the characters in the dystopian drama "Years and Years" do with their voice assistants. Hopefully your group calls won't also include the disembodied voice of dead aunts who have been recreated in an Al netherworld.
This is a pretty nifty idea for cutting down on the massive amounts of cardboard and packing materials that Amazon uses every single day. Instead of the traditional cardboard box filled with bubble wrap, this design involves two pieces of a harder material flat-packed with a flexible middle material that can be inflated. The box can then be sealed and shipped off the customer, who can then reuse the packaging or theoretically send it back to Amazon. I'm not sure how seamless the return logistics would be here, but if Amazon could figure it out, it could be a serious boon to the world's trees.
Most iPhones and Apple Watches from the last few years have been water-resistant enough that a dip in the pool with one won't damage them, but actually using one underwater has been near impossible. While you're not likely going to start answering emails while scuba diving, it might be nice to be able to snap a photo or two, and this patent envisions being able to do just that. You'd let the device know that you're about to go underwater, which would tell it to basically decrease the touchscreen's sensitivity, where it only registers the very firm press of a finger on the screen as an input, rather than all the water washing against it. Now your colleagues will have to guess whether that underwater Zoom background is truly real or fake.
Apple is exploring how haptic notifications would work for things like AirPods, AR glasses and other head-worn devices. In this patent, it looks into exploring adding vibrations to these devices to help draw the wearer's attention to something. In the case of AirPods, it could be that only the right earpiece buzzes, which alerts the user to look up to the right. That could be because someone in front of them is speaking, or perhaps because they're playing a VR game and the haptics are guiding them to look at a certain area of the display to check out an incoming message. It'll be like an Apple Watch, but inside your ear canal.
There are two types of people in the world: those who plug their phone in every night when they go to bed, and those who just wing it. Either way, you likely have rather distinct usage patterns for when you need your phone and when it's sitting idle. Instead of just getting a notification that your phone is nearly dead, this patent outlines a system that would notify users (hopefully on another device) that they should probably plug in their phone now if they want it to be charged for when they're next likely going to need it. Hopefully they heed those advance warnings, or they could just learn to be sensible and plug their phone in at night.
I've poked fun at Apple many times over the years for patenting some pretty inconsequential things, like lanyards, paper bags and those wooden cubes that are impossible to sit on at Apple Stores. But this design patent for the Apple Watch packaging is actually worth it. It's a lovely design that unfolds around the watch as you open it, unlike the iPhone box, which is just a rectangle that's difficult to open because the lid is sealed on so tightly.
Several companies, including Apple, have started exploring the idea of using anonymous crowdsourced location data to help you find your lost gadgets. Facebook appears to be jumping on this trend, but in typical Facebook fashion, it's just to sell ads better. In the scenario laid out by the patent, a person could be walking nearby a store, and even though you've not interacted with it, beacons in the store could ping nearby devices, which could then triangulate that you're nearby (using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi) and push you deals enticing you to come in. Maybe you'll actually want to lose your devices soon.
Facebook has long been characterized by its News Feed, a Facebook-defined list of the best posts by the people you follow. It seems that the company is interested in taking this idea even further, pulling in updates from every app on your phone. While it might be somewhat concerning that Facebook envisions giving the headlines from the news apps you follow the same weight as the dessert your friend just posted on Instagram, the names for the fake apps in its examples in the patent are amazing. Do you just love listening to music on Sportify and posting photos on Introgram?
I'm not entirely sure why Microsoft has gotten into the field of predicting epidemics (feel like there's one it might've missed, I'm not sure?), but apparently it has. This patent describes a novel design for trapping mosquitoes to study the diseases they carry, to help prevent their spread to humans. One thing that's for certain: It has windows.
Have you ever tried to get something important done on your phone? Half the time, the mobile site is terrible and you can't get whatever you need to do to load properly. Or have you ever tried to do just about anything on a smart TV only to realize that typing using an on-screen keyboard is the slowest, dullest activity on Earth? This patent envisions taking the best parts of various modalities and turning them into one experience. Say you're browsing on your phone and want to use a larger display: The system in Microsoft's patent could toss the part of the page you want to see (like a movie or your calendar) onto the big screen, while leaving the part you need to interact with (like a keyboard) on your smartphone. It's the best of both worlds. Now, where's my Lumia?
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.