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Facebook wants to stretch out your skin

Plus connected showers, touchable screens, submerged servers and other patents from Big Tech.

Facebook wants to stretch out your skin

And Amazon wants to turn your walls into tactile screens.

Image: Amazon and USPTO

Hello and welcome to another edition of Big Tech patents while quarantined. There were actually a couple patents from Google and Amazon this week that would make the endless litany of Zoom calls perhaps feel a little more human. But considering it's the weekend, put down your work computer and go out for a ride in your connected Apple car, or have fun with your Amazon drone-kite surfing kit. Just because we're all stuck at home doesn't mean the products of tomorrow won't help us have a little fun.

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.

Alphabet

3D telepresence

We're all stuck at home on far more video calls that we'd probably like to be these days, but perhaps this patent from Google could help. The company seems to be exploring ways to make 3D video calls a little easier to pull off. The setup the patent envisions involves depth-sensing cameras (like those on the front of an iPhone) along with regular cameras and a lenticular display (kind of like those holographic stickers they used to sell at museums) that would make the person you're talking to look three-dimensional. It's not quite the hologram of Princess Leia from "Star Wars," but it's a start.

Automatically changing keyboard languages

If you've ever tried to have a text conversation with someone in another language, you know how annoying it is that your phone keeps trying to autocorrect your foreign words into English. Google seems to have realized this as well and has patented a system for detecting that you've started typing in another language. The software would ask you if you wanted to switch to using the dictionaries for both of the languages (the one your phone is set to, and the one you're typing in). Je pense que c'est un innovation je voudrais utiliser sur mon téléphone intelligent.

Smart shower

Have you ever wished Google were with you in the shower? I don't believe Google (or its Nest subsidiary) has ever released a smart shower device, but this patent outlines a "smart water apparatus" that could regulate the temperate and water flow in a shower. The device could be controlled by voice and limit the duration of your shower. Through a connected app, you could even set up temperature thresholds and schedules for when people could shower. Sounds like the dream for an overbearing parent who loves to say, "I'm the one that pays the power bills around here!" when a single lamp is left on for five minutes.

Amazon

Kite surfing with a drone

Geekwire got to this one before I could, but it's too amazing not to share. Four years ago, I declared droneboarding the sport of the future, and it seems some inventive folks at Amazon have taken the idea of snowboarding with a drone and headed out to sea. I'm not exactly sure how a drone like this could serve Amazon's drone delivery dreams (unless delivery people start skating across lakes to give me my Prime packages), but I could definitely see something like this popping up at lakes across the country next summer. Who needs a speedboat when you have a drone?

Tangible displays

Remember those weird pushable pin sculpture things you could use to make "art" from the Sharper Image in the 1980s? Well they sell them on Amazon now if you want one, but also the retailer is apparently looking at using a similar concept to make displays you could interact with. Its new patent outlines a system where each person in a video call would have a display made out of tiny, moveable pixels rather similar to those '80s pin art things, that could reform to match your body's outline, as well as a smaller display that the user could use to digitally "touch" the hand (or other body part?) of the person they're speaking with.

Apple

Finding your connected car in the parking lot

The premise for one of my favorite "Seinfeld" episodes may soon be a thing of the past. Apple is or is not working on cars (if not, it certainly has a lot of car-related patents these days!), but this could be game-changing if it were added to any connected vehicle. Using sensors deployed around a garage, or just directly from the car's own internet connection, you could ping the car and ask it for directions from where you are to where the car is. Because no one wants to be stuck in a mall in New Jersey if they don't have to be.

No-latency voice assistant

Have you ever asked Siri or Alexa a question and then sat in awkward silence trying to figure out if it heard you or whether you need to ask again? Apple is apparently trying to cut down on that dead time. Its new patent outlines using multiple processors to work on the question Siri has been asked as quickly as possible, dedicating one processor to constantly listening for wake words and questions, and then a second to actually carry out the question it was asked. Hopefully this makes Siri a little bit snappier.

Facebook

A skin-stretching device

This sounds way more horrific than it actually is. Every time you move any part of your hand, whether you're typing on a keyboard or grabbing an apple, some part of the skin on your hand is stretched. Facebook envisions recording that data (likely through a pair of connected gloves) and using tiny actuators to gently stretch your skin to give you the impression that an object you're grasping in VR has the same basic shape to its real-world counterpart. So, think less medieval torture equipment and more fun gaming accessory.

Microsoft

Turning medical events into readable summaries

With this patent, Microsoft seems to have realized that electronic health records, while revolutionary, have really been designed for hospital administrators and health care professionals, rather than for regular people — like their patients. Microsoft's patent envisions a system within a piece of EHR software that could take medical events and items in a person's record and turn them into "executive summaries," using language from the internet to make them more accessible to the average reader. This could be sent to the patient or, with their consent, to their families, to help them feel a little more in the loop about their own health.

Dunking servers in water

This seems to be taking liquid-cooled computers to the extreme. Microsoft apparently envisions dropping entire server racks, or even entire server farms, into specially designed coolant tanks to keep them as efficient as possible. In the patent, Microsoft's racks could still run while one is removed from the tank — I just wouldn't want to be the person whose job it is to wipe all the coolant off a server before doing maintenance work on it.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

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The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

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Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

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