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I don't know what single piece of news could possibly be at the top of your mind right now, but I'm very glad you decided to take a moment away to see what new things Big Tech won patents for this week.
It's been a very long week, but even with everything else going on, the patent officers over at the USPTO steadfastly carried out their jobs and awarded, as ever, some zany patents to the biggest companies in tech. Amazon is trying to land drones on trucks; Facebook wants to turn your wrist into a projector; Apple wants to turn your car into your office; and Microsoft just wants to make it a little easier to schedule meetings.
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 just put in your preorder for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, you're probably excited for your first 5G phone and how much faster it'll seem. But Google is thinking much bigger than just a faster cellular network; this patent outlines a global communication network that uses satellites and weather balloons to connect houses, boats, planes and everything else to a meshed communications network. It's like its sister company Loon, but on steroids.
This sounds like something out of a spy B-movie, but it's a thing. UPS and Mercedes, among others, have been toying around with the idea of landing drones on trucks, in some cases to allow delivery vehicles to essentially be in two places at once as the drone flies off with a package in one direction while the driver goes off in another. And it seems Amazon is looking into a similar concept. It's not too much of a stretch to see its fleet of forthcoming electric vans pairing up with Amazon Prime Air at some point in the future.
Apple is usually extremely careful about holding designs for forthcoming products very close to its chest, but this is an interesting wrinkle in what the design of future AirPods might look like. Rumors have started swirling that the next versions of the Pro earbuds will have an even shorter stem on them, and this patent from Apple explores how a design like that might work. Essentially, the stemless buds would have a movable "anchor" that could lock the bud into place in your ear, so that it wouldn't fall out, even without the counterbalance of a stem. It's unlikely we'll see new AirPods until next year, but hopefully then we can all look back at this patent and say, "Yes, Mike, you were so right." First time for everything.
If you've ever had to buy glasses online, you probably know what "interpupillary distance" measures — it's the length between your two eyes — because you need to know it to get a pair of glasses that fit just right. Apple doesn't sell glasses right now, but there's a lot of talk that it soon will. To make sure they fit right, Apple will need to measure that pupillary distance, which this patent suggests doing using the depth sensors on a smartphone … like those you find on every iPhone released over the last few years.
Apple has been diving into the world of health informatics since it launched HealthKit back in 2014, and it has been increasing its foothold in health tech ever since. Without explicitly saying it, there's a sense that Apple wants to take a big slice of health care industry revenue, and one of the biggest things it could do is make the process of accessing and editing electronic health records easier for health care providers and patients. The patent outlines the process for providers to add a new EHR system to Apple Health — and how a patient can access their information on the system and add it to their Health app and connect it with all their other health data. It's a process that's still in the works but could help bring the future of health to your wrist.
Another long-rumored product Apple has been working on is a car, and the company has won a few patents in a similar vein to this one, which explores how to mitigate carsickness and boredom in autonomous vehicles with VR headsets. But what's interesting about this is potential applications beyond the car: The patent outlines how VR headsets can be used to re-create real-world experiences, like a desktop computer or a home theater, virtually. Could this be what the future of working at home looks like?
This one feels particularly futuristic … or should I say "Futurama." Facebook's new patent toys with the idea of a wrist-worn wearable computer that could be used to interact with a VR or AR headset to project images into the wearer's field of view, and to track their movements in a virtual world. It could also work like a standalone wearable, if you were interested in having Facebook directly on your wrist. Interesting ideas aside, the patent's representation of what a person looks like from overhead is … something else. Generally, if you have to label the thing you're drawing to make it clear what you're talking about, you've probably done a poor job drawing it.
What if everyone knew the second you went to the bar, or somewhere less savory, because your phone told all your Facebook friends? I'm not sure why exactly you'd want that — unless perhaps you're a child and your parents want to know your every move — but that's essentially what this patent outlines. I guess it could be pretty useful for those thirsty vacation status updates the second you land on your beach getaway, but otherwise it feels like something you wouldn't automatically want blasted to the world. Unless you're Steve Wozniak.
Finding time to schedule meetings that work for everyone involved is often annoying busy work, which is likely why we've had a few patents in these roundups over the month aiming to fix this. Microsoft's patent looks to find times that work for everyone that also tries to preserve periods for uninterrupted work during the day, because jumping between meetings and projects is a surefire way to ensure you get no work done. The best parts of this patent though are that in the art, the example person apparently writes in their own calendar "tennis w/ spouse," and their marketing team includes the Three Stooges:
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.