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Facebook wants to make thought-hearing glasses

Plus smart glasses from Google, transforming drones, AR clothing and other patents from Big Tech.

It's the weekend! Time to switch my digital avatar's outfit from a suit to lounge pants. I don't actually live in VR yet (though I did try working in it this week), but a new patent from Amazon might make that a reality sooner rather than later. The company's also working on drones that could get deliveries to me even quicker than its other drones, and Facebook is working on making immersive videos work on any screen in my house. Who needs to go outside when I can bring the entire world to my couch? Big Tech's patents this week seem very on board with me staying at home as long as I want to.

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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

More comfortable VR

Most VR headsets either rely on a smartphone or a built-in screen to display content. That pretty much limits every headset design to some variation of "a big set of goggles with a large flat area at the end." Google's new patent explores how a display that doesn't conform to a rigid single shape might look, and as the patent suggests, "this may be particularly useful for AR and VR headsets where space for optical systems is limited." The future of virtual reality — which may be coming to an office near you soon — might look a little less like ski goggles.


Mapping the trip home, too

This would be a supremely useful update to Google Maps. If you've ever searched for directions and set off on your trip without also looking at the traffic conditions for the way back, you've probably gotten stuck in some unexpected traffic jam before. The update suggested in this patent would show you how long the return leg of your trip would be, to more accurately reflect your entire journey. This probably would've been more useful back in the days before lockdown, when we all actually went outside to do things, but still.

Amazon

Transforming drones

If you thought a V-22 Osprey looks cool when it transforms between vertical and horizontal flight, this might be the drone for you. Amazon has a patent for a new delivery drone that can take off in a box-like shape, then fold out into something that looks closer to a traditional airplane while flying, and box back up again when hovering to land. It's a way to get the best of both modes of flight — landing in tight spaces using the hovering method and flying longer distances quicker using the plane shape — that could help it get Prime deliveries to customers quicker. Amazon is truly playing catch-up on deliveries in its home country, so hopefully this has moved well beyond conceptual planning — and signs suggest that it has.

Using AR to get clothes that fit

It's extremely annoying when you buy clothes online and they don't fit, but what else are you going to do? Go to a store and try things on? Not anymore, that's for sure. What if you had cameras to scan your physiology and figure out exactly what clothes would fit you before you bought them? And what if Amazon had that data? If that sounds appealing to you, the company's new patent might be of interest: It explores using digital avatars based on your proportions to create super-accurate virtual fitting rooms. It might make it easier to see how you look in this season's hottest fits, but are you going to want to send that footage of you in your underwear to Amazon to make it work?

Collectible AR creatures

Gotta catch 'em all. Amazon's patent outlines a system for offering digital collectibles along with physical purchases. Say you bought a new Pokémon game, and on the inside of the packaging there was a QR code that would unlock a digital version of Pikachu that you could interact with in AR — the more you buy, the more AR friends you could amass. And given how kids are, I could see this becoming a trend like Tamagotchi. (Kids still play with those, right?) Hopefully whoever ends up designing the final creatures for this comes up with something less terrifying than this hairless mole thing in the patent art:

Apple

A simple charging station for electric vehicles

Charging isn't the hardest part of owning an EV, but remembering to juice the thing is pretty key to using one, and Apple's new patent wants to remove that step from the process. Its new patent is for a connector plate that would sit on the back or front of a vehicle and match up with a corresponding plate in your garage. Much like the tennis ball hanging from the ceiling of yesteryear, the plate would be a guide for you to know when you've backed your car in enough to your parking spot, and the vehicle would sit charging until you next needed it. Hopefully Apple, the company known for its extremely considered designs, has put more thought into the actual car it may be building than the patent art suggests:

A more useful iPad case

The Magic Keyboard case for the new iPad Pro only came out about a month ago, but it seems the company is looking for ways to improve it already. The current model features a hinge and magnets that hold the iPad in a floating position above the keyboard, and hidden in the hinge is a USB-C charging port. The model envisioned in this new patent, however, replaces that port with a slot to dock and charge your Apple Pencil. This would be a great addition to the case that I would definitely use — if I had any idea where my Apple Pencil had gone.

Facebook

Controlling 360 videos on TV with your phone

You've been able to share 360-degree videos on Facebook for a while, but as cool as they can be, it's hard to capture the immersive majesty of "Planet Earth" on a 4-inch screen. This new patent would allow you to toss an image from your News Feed onto a bigger display, like a TV screen, while being able to rotate and navigate around the image by tilting your phone. It's a simple workaround that might make these sorts of videos more enjoyable — at least until Facebook convinces us all to buy Oculus headsets.

Thought-hearing glasses

This may sound like science fiction, but it's a technology that researchers at MIT have been working on for years. It involves using sensors to "hear" the words you say in your head — in the same way you "say" words when reading quietly to yourself — and turning that information into computer-readable data. If it works, it could actually make voice assistants not awkward to use in person, as you're not speaking out loud into the void. Facebook, which is exploring the world of brain-computer interfaces more broadly, appears to be looking into this field. Its patent suggests including sensors to capture these subvocalizations into a pair of smart glasses, conveniently designed like a pair of Oakleys from the mid-'80s:

Microsoft

Overeager virtual assistants

When I first scanned this patent, I felt like I was reading script drafts from an early version of "Her." The patent outlines a virtual assistant that can proactively reach out to its user and ask about setting up plans — but the way they're phrased in the screenshots included really makes it sound like they're asking for a date. In reality, it's just Cortana being a third wheel on other people's dates, scanning conversations for pertinent search terms and showing related information. For example, if someone asks if you want to go see a movie tonight, you could press the Cortana button to find out what's playing. Assuming you used Cortana. Which you don't.

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