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This week, big tech is acutely interested in knowing more about you to better serve you ads and finding zany new ways of displaying you those ads and more, from curved VR glasses to transparent displays to car seats that turn into screens. If we ever get to go outside again, some of these patents may well be the foundation for some of the tech we use. But if not, at least Amazon's new patent on computer vision will help keep out the people we don't want in our homes.
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.
How do you know if someone's a Red Sox fan? Don't worry; they'll tell you. Red Sox fans are some of the most vocal, fervent sports fans I've ever met, so I'm not sure Google's new patent would be all that necessary for them. But the gist is that a social network system would be able to infer interests and activities of a user based on where they are and what they post about. If they're based in Boston's Copley Square and post about the Sox, it's highly likely they know where the Green Monster is. The system would then know to tailor its advertising to a Boston-based Sox fan — perhaps they're in the mood for a nice pair of red socks, or a second baseman?
Most VR headsets today rely on flat displays and lenses to immerse the wearer in a virtual world, but if the display actually wrapped around their head, it might feel a little more real. Google's patent for "non-planar displays" would aim to do just that. The patent also draws out a pretty snazzy-looking design for what these future headsets could even look like.
Most smartphones and computers have software to adjust the color temperature of the screen to be a little softer on the eyes at nighttime, which studies suggest can make it easier to fall asleep after a long screen-time session. But many devices also have backlit keyboards now, which tend to just produce their own blinding shade of white light when turned on. Google's patent outlines a system that would adjust the temperature and color of the lights on those keys in much the same way that screens now dim. It won't stop parents from saying their kids' phones are the reason they're staying up all night, though.
Amazon already has a system that can use cameras and smart locks to let people into your home for things like package deliveries, but its new patent involves the system operating a little more autonomously. In the patent, the system could recognize that a home chef has arrived at your door to prepare you dinner (something we can obviously all relate to), or that a delivery robot is here to drop off a package, and let them in if it's safe. This could be determined by pinging that person (or robot) to make sure it's them, and then letting them know things about your house, like that you have a dog that might jump them when they step inside. Hopefully the system would know the difference between a licensed professional and a guy who just happens to own a chef's toque.
Perhaps some day soon the trope from just about every sci-fi movie ever will become a reality. According to a new patent from Apple, the company is looking into displays that are either partially or entirely transparent. The patent suggests the displays could be found on any sort of device, including MacBooks or iPhones, and as you'd expect, they'd feature a bezel made of something opaque that would house all of the actual components to leave you with a large blank space to see through. This might be useful for some applications, like augmented reality, but is it something we'd actually want all the time? In movies, screens are often see-through so you can still see the actors on the other side.
Who needs a transparent display when your whole car can be a computer screen? Another patent from Apple this week sees the company exploring what infotainment systems in the back of vehicles (autonomous or otherwise) might look like. In the patent, a small center console could let a passenger choose to see whatever they're looking at — such as the map directions the car is following — blown up to cover the entire backseat area of the car. The materials used for the carseat, floor and doors would let light shine through, allowing them to turn into one massive computer screen. Stick a camera on the front of the car, and you could definitely see a future where someone makes a program where it looks like their backseat is a magic carpet flying along the expressway. It's a whole new world.
If you've followed any tech media over the last decade or so (including this jerk), you've likely been convinced that everything in the future will be made of carbon nanotubes. To date, that has not proven to be the case. But some companies are still looking at ways to use the difficult-to-produce super-materials, and apparently that includes Facebook. Its patent outlines an electrical connector made using nanotubes (and some less-futuristic materials), but whether we'll actually see things like these outside of a lab is another story.
Have you ever heard the myth about Facebook listening in to your conversations and using the info to serve you ads? It's (almost certainly) not actually doing that, but what if someone else were? This new patent from Microsoft describes a VoIP system where conversations could be mined for words and phrases that could indicate something one of the speakers is interested in buying. Because who doesn't want their conversations about a truck they're looking at to be used for future marketing touch points?
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.