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The world might seem crazy these days, but I'm not sure it can hold a candle to some of the ideas coming out of the engineering departments of the big U.S. tech companies. Apple is trying to save our lives from shark attacks and cancer; Amazon wants us to try on clothes in a mirror that would rival the Evil Queen's in "Snow White"; and Microsoft wants in on the 3D-printing game in 2020, for some reason.
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.
One of the greatest use cases for smartphones has been finding the answer to any question whenever you need it; winning arguments has never been easier. Google apparently has been thinking about how that extends to digital conversations, too. A new patent from Google suggests that the company wants assistants in its messaging apps. The idea is that two people having a conversation could call on a bot to search for things without having to leave the chat. Much like Facebook tried to do with its M Messenger bot, Google's assistant could search for things like restaurant or holiday plans, but it could also just execute straight-up Google searches to prove someone else wrong, like this amazing diagram suggests:
This is a patent about tracking people around the web, and I'm just impressed that it doesn't mention the word "cookie" once. I'm just impressed.
The over-surveilled life is starting earlier and earlier for kids these days — sometimes before birth. Google's new patent envisions using a Nest camera as a supercharged baby monitor, where it could alert parents when their baby is stirring, and even tell them what their baby's heart rate is and if it's spiking. It's not the first time computer vision systems have been used to detect a heartbeat; Microsoft's Xbox Kinect cameras have been able to do that for years. But using it to track a sleeping baby's vitals would both likely be a boon to parents and a wonderful privacy conundrum for the future. Insurance companies are giving out Apple Watches to track people's health today; imagine a future where they want sensors to see how well you're sleeping each night.
Everyone has felt (or just plain given into) the temptation to check notifications on their phone while driving. Google's new patent suggests that a virtual assistant could be your co-pilot, scanning your car or your phone's notifications as they come in to gauge whether they're really worth bugging you about. The driver would be able to chat with the assistant to respond to notifications, and discuss notifications the bot didn't understand or missed, all without having to look away from the road.
Verily might not be working on smart contact lenses anymore, but that hasn't stopped it from applying for patents for its work. In this patent, it envisions a system in a contact lens that could measure the hydration levels of the lens and the eyeball it's sitting on top of. I've never chosen to wear contacts over glasses for this exact reason: The idea of a dry disc literally scratching at my eyelid while I'm just trying to see things is beyond tortuous. Hopefully someone can make use of this patent in the future, though, and perhaps I'll think about swapping out the Coke-bottle frames for something less visible.
Amazon purchased Twitch, the preeminent video game spectating site in 2014, around the time that esports started to explode in popularity and millions of rapt fans began tuning in to games. This patent outlines a system of identifying what's going on in a game and overlaying statistics and other information on the feed for the fans watching along. For anyone who's watched pretty much any sport ever, the vibe will look familiar: stats on the players (or at least their characters' avatars), what equipment they're using, etc. Hopefully they don't figure out how to digitally re-create Joe Buck or Troy Aikman, though.
One big problem with most drones is that, as this patent suggests, they're "typically designed for either agility or efficiency, but not both." Most drones have four degrees of freedom (pitch, yaw, roll and heave, for you aviation nerds), but if you want those other two degrees (surge and sway, that is), you have to create something that has more than four sets of propellers along the same plane. Amazon's patent fixes that with some wild drone designs: propellors facing in all directions, and one in the center of the machine, allowing it to travel in any direction with the same level of accuracy and power. Drones that are less likely to sway or go off-course could be super useful as the company explores drone deliveries, but the patent also suggests these many-fanned drones would have value in warehouses, packaging facilities, libraries, stores and even museums.
No, this isn't an '80s sci-fi movie or the evil queen's mirror from "Snow White." Amazon has a patent this week that suggests it's working on what it calls a "blended reality" system that could overlay digital images onto a real-world camera feed and a mirror. The result could be pretending that you're on a sunny beach when you are actually stuck in your fifth-floor walkup studio apartment in Queens like I have been for a month, just for example. It could also be used for something closer to Amazon's core business: shopping. The patent suggests using the smart mirror to virtually try on clothes, which, if the AI is accurate enough, could save a lot on shipping costs — though perhaps not less than everyone in the world having to buy an internet-connected floor-length mirror.
At this point, everyone knows that the Apple Watch can track your runs or how often you're standing. But what about sharks? Apparently that's something that's keeping Apple engineers up at night. This patent outlines a wearable, which just happens to be shaped like the Apple Watch in the diagrams, that has sensors to monitor the world around the wearer, and also pull in data from pertinent sources. If you're swimming at the beach, it would display information about the pH level of the water, local rip tides, or … "a warning of dangerous predators such as sharks are in the area." Just when you thought it was safe to set your watch to track a swim and get back in the water.
This seems like quite a hard left turn for Apple. The company has dabbled in health care products, such as getting the EKG monitor on its Apple Watch accepted by the FDA, but this patent outlines something approaching clinical healthcare technology. The patent may have been acquired by Apple, as it doesn't appear to have been authored by Apple engineers, and it outlines a system for detecting and treating cancerous lesions. Perhaps, like so many other big tech companies, Apple is getting serious about pushing into health care, and if so, this seems like a surprisingly bold step in that direction.
Using your smartphone when you're wearing gloves is impossible, unless you have those dedicated smartphone-specific gloves, which are easy to lose and not usually that warm. Apple is trying to help those of us who live in cold climates out. This patent suggests taking in larger inputs onto a touchscreen and determining whether they're accidental touches, or if you're touching the screen with something less conductive or accurate than a human finger. If this works, it could be a godsend to our appendages.
We can't really see any of our friends these days, so put this patent in the pile of things you'll remember to do when life returns to normal. Instagram appears to be working on a way to post Instagram Stories as groups — if you're hanging out with your friends, you can make a Story, tag all of them in it, and then they all can add to the Story you've created. Perfect for weddings and concerts and parties. It would cut down on duplicative Insta stories, and might encourage people to share more when they know all their friends will see it. When they can see their friends again, that is.
Just about every virtual assistant out there struggles to handle complicated commands, but Microsoft is thinking about how to make them do things that are a little more useful than just telling you the weather or turning off a light. The patent outlines an "all-in-one computing device" that users can speak to, and ask it commands it can learn from. One example it suggests would require facial recognition and a deep understanding of context: a person calls on the computer and says, "Move my game from the den to this TV and pause it." The system would know she was playing a video game in the den, and pause it, and switch the stream over to the TV in the room she's just entered. It could then learn to do that automatically next time. It seems one step closer to the smart homes you see in sci-fi movies … and the Disney channel.
Microsoft is apparently interested in the rather niche market of 3D printer services. There are companies out there, like Shapeways, where customers can choose or upload their own 3D designs that the company then prints and mails to them, so they don't have to deal with the hassle of actually owning a 3D printer. Where Microsoft comes in, as the patent sees it, is that "3D models most often need to be designed to be 3D printed, and that expertise is beyond the average customer." Harsh, but probably true. The patent suggests software that can determine whether customers' designs can physically be printed, and if not, make suggestions for how to fix them.
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This is clearly a huge trend. In the two months we've been tracking these patents, there have been a ton about making VR controllers that mimic real-world sensations. This one from Microsoft, however, looks a little more fleshed out: It suggests a gnarly joystick-hand harness combo where each finger could be vibrated separately to give the sense of something being in the wearer's hand. The joystick part could be operated by a single finger to help the user navigate around the virtual world quickly (it's still pretty hard to replicate moving around in VR if you're not on a treadmill) or to perform other actions like shooting bad guys in a game. Now someone just needs to make some VR games that lots of people actually want to play.
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.