Get access to Protocol
Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.
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.
Perhaps even before our lives were dominated by video calls, you might've noticed when someone just couldn't figure out where to place their camera. Generally, anything below eye height is going to lead to some unflattering angles, but if you're also on a phone, holding your device up that long can get tiring. Google is apparently trying to solve this with AR: According to this patent, it's looking into using the depth sensors found on the front of many smartphones to re-create your face in video calls at a more flattering angle, to reduce what the pattern calls "the big nose effect." I'm here for this concept, but also Google's depiction of what it's trying to eliminate:
Google Maps has become increasingly beset with ads in recent years, with promoted pins and locations on various instances of Maps. But this patent, which determines how Google goes about valuing ads in Google Maps — it, shockingly, has a lot to do with location — shows that the company might be looking at turning every part of the world into a digital version of Times Square, by displaying ads in-between the streets on a map. Hopefully it doesn't feel the need to run ads in all these potential slots at once, as that might make it rather difficult to navigate:
It's tough to do things, I know. Many days, even before the pandemic, I was content to just sit on the couch all day watching TV and ordering takeout. But Google is apparently looking into outsourcing to a virtual assistant the task of making sure you actually get your butt off the sofa. The patent outlines an assistant that could suggest things to do, as well as where and when to do them, based on the user's preferences. It could also suggest things to do that your friends or other users have enjoyed doing. Some of the suggestions aren't exactly things I'd consider a hobby, though: choosing "fight off a cold" as an activity is a really odd way to want to pass the time.
When you search for things online, you're generally only shown the prices for things that everyone sees. But if you're a member of a loyalty program, you might often get discounts or other benefits that could make some products cheaper or more attractive. Amazon's patent outlines a search engine that can store which loyalty programs you're a part of, and show any deals associated with that membership that businesses might be running. This could be useful for finding deals at partners of loyalty programs that you might not be aware of, but if you're already loyal to one hotel or airline brand, you're probably going to search them first before doing a general search.
Amazon has been making waves for years about using autonomous drones for delivering orders, but to date, it hasn't gotten much traction. It seems, according to this patent, to be turning its attention at least partly to a less-regulated bit of airspace: indoors. The patent explains how autonomous drones, fitted with cameras and sensors, could be used to inspect inventory stored in the bins in the company's massive, high-ceilinged warehouses.
This feels like a concept you'd see in sci-fi films set in a future where people have time to kill in the back of a self-driving car. Instead of staring at their phones, the sunroof and windows tint black, and news programs or views of scenic landscapes would replace whatever dystopian cityscape the car is driving through. It seems that Apple is looking into turning this into a reality, by creating see-through glass panes embedded with LEDs and other light sources that could change the color of the glass and allow information to be displayed on it. Pair that with the AR maps it was working on from last week, and you could have a whole new way of looking at driving on your hands.
This feels a little bit like the walking-around version to Apple's patent above. Most AR headsets use cameras to portray information on flat surfaces in front of your eyes. If you're like me and wear giant glasses that make you look like an owl, that might be fine, as your entire field of view is covered by lenses, but this patent explores adding AR to the periphery as well. The glasses in the patent have lenses that curve around the side of the frames so that they can overlay information on your peripheral view, which could make the experience of augmenting reality feel a little less jarring. That said, you would have to go out in public wearing something that looks like this:
If you've ever watched a presentation from a major tech company and wondered how they nailed the timing on slide changes so well … it's probably because they've rehearsed it a thousand times and have someone whose job it is just to press forward on the slide at the right time. But if you don't have that luxury at your disposal, you might find the ideas in this patent helpful. Microsoft is exploring presentation software that would be able to listen for cues in your speech to detect that you've gotten to the end of one slide, and move you automatically on to the next. It also suggests doing a training run, where the user runs through their presentation, manually clicking where they want to change slides, and the system would record that and do it automatically when they go to present. I'm not sure about having to have something listen to me at all times to get this to work, but it'd make presentations a lot less awkward than the "please can you click to the next slide, no, not the last slide, the next one" that often happens.
Stressing other people out when you're in charge is a very easy, albeit not very amenable, way to get stuff done. If you're having a conversation with someone and they stress to you, "I need you to get this back to me by end of day," and you know that they are ultimately the person who could end your employment, you're very likely going to get it back to them soon, unless you don't want to work there anymore. It's a lot harder to convey emotion and stress like that to a digital assistant, but this patent is exploring being able to understand human intonation and emotion in requests, such as a user stressing that they need to get a meeting scheduled with someone by the end of the week, which the AI would interpret as it being an urgent meeting when looking for time to schedule. Hopefully when the robot uprising comes, they'll not be too annoyed at us taking them for granted as digital PAs.
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.