Google wants to connect everything you own to the internet
Surveilling older adults, connected helmets, wearables talking to doctors and other patents from Big Tech.
Hello and welcome back to the world of zany patents from Big Tech! While 2020 is still dragging on (I know it's 2021, but you can't tell me 2020 is over until I can go anywhere other than the grocery store), at least there are still great new patents to uncover. And there's some fascinating ones this week, including Facebook wanting to make clothes like real in games, Microsoft trying to make sports more inclusive and Google wanting to make it easier to spy on your parents. If that's something you want to do.
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.
People who have aging parents might find themselves checking in frequently to make sure Mom and Dad are OK, or even buying gadgets or products that make it a little easier to be self-sufficient. Google's solution, according to this patent, is a way to keep tabs on them remotely. Using smart sensors placed around the house, a system like Google Home could be set up to alert a third party about what's happening in the house. For example, the system can send an alert if it notices that nobody is moving around at specific times, and you can then decide whether to call or text to check in. Just be sure to ask your parents' permission first before you turn their home into a personal panopticon.
A few years ago, Google introduced Jacquard, its project for interweaving electronic sensors into fabrics. It's been used to add phone controls to denim jackets, bags and even shoes. It's a neat idea, but it requires you to buy new products that you might not actually want. With this patent, Google envisions bringing that same concept to any product you already own and making it smart. That could be things like touch sensors or tracking movement — perhaps you could just slap one of these on your parents instead of putting sensors all over their house.
Alphabet's health research arm, Verily, is thinking about a future — which we might currently be living through — where people don't need to get to the doctor to be diagnosed. This patent envisions a wearable that can constantly track your heart (it's unclear how much of a drain this would be on a small wearable battery), and identify any potential issues by consulting databases online, like if your data suggests that you might be having an arrhythmia. While there's a few wearables on the market that can do something like this right now, this patent imagines automatically sharing that data with your doctor, presumably so they could review the data, or potentially algorithmically warn you and your doctor that an emergency situation is underway. Hopefully it doesn't call your doctor if you suck at golf, though.
This one is conceptually quite straightforward, but important nonetheless when you're thinking about a phalanx of delivery drones flying around on their own. The patent outlines a laser range-finding system mounted on drone rotors that can help the drones "see" what's around them so they could shift their routes to avoid it. But for many in the drone industry, it's not really the tech that's holding back autonomous deliveries — it's humans.
Rather like with autonomous delivery drones, it's good to know that Apple is thinking about what obstacles its autonomous vehicles might encounter. In this patent, it's specifically thinking about what to do when a car sees something that appears to be someone guiding traffic, and how to react to various hand signals they might make. This makes me think about a future where I could just carry a stop sign around with me and become the king of robot cars, directing them to follow my every whim.
If you've ever played a video game where someone is wearing clothes (which is … most of them??), you've probably noticed that they don't exactly fall like the ones you wear IRL. I think my favorite example is uniforms in sports games; the systems usually recognize now that cloth stretches as people move, but then instead of just stretching the fabric, they'll stretch out the letters in players' names, making it look like the jerseys are made of elastic. Facebook's patent outlines a system that uses a machine learning-based "cloth simulator" to more realistically mimic how physics affects the wrinkles in simulated clothes. With Facebook's deep push into VR, this could be one of the things that helps the platform feel less like an awkward immersive video game and more like real life, represented in a headset.
When I was growing up, my mom used to make me write a diary anytime we went on vacation. It was a noble endeavor, but amazingly, my child brain was more interested in actually being on vacation than writing about it later. Regardless of what that might have meant from my chosen career, my adult brain is still a fan of this idea. The patent suggests a system that can auto-generate a travel diary based on your calls, texts, photos, location and other data from your phone. You could then share your digital diary with anyone you might want to make jealous — though you should probably consider whether giving over that much data to a system like this is worth the hate-likes.
If this could work, this could be a really neat way to make sports somewhat more inclusive. This patent envisions using sensors to help visually impaired people play sports. The example it gives includes something that looks a lot like an Xbox Kinect sensor built into a batting helmet. In the example, the helmet could provide a signal to the wearer that a pitch is incoming and it's time to swing. Alerts could be vibrations, sounds or other sensory flags. And although it might look odd to wear a batting helmet outside of the baseball diamond, the patent also envisions a system for other aspects of daily life, such as alerting the wearer when it's safe to cross the road.
If you've had to do any team-building exercises over Zoom during this pandemic, you've probably come across a few sessions of icebreaker questions. Maybe you've had to share what you'd take from your house in a fire, or what brands you unquestionably love. It's a sure-fire way to get people chatting. In this patent, Microsoft is envisioning bringing that energy into the rest of your life, whether on conversations you're having on social media, or even phone calls you're receiving. Pertinent information about friends, colleagues or new connections could be displayed next to their names on social media or when they're calling you, offering something to talk about other than work or the weather, like which marathons they've run or which '90s rock band they're still seeing live.
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.