It's another week in quarantine, and while every day might feel the same as the last, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office keeps churning out new patents that definitely feel unique. Google can be your babysitter! Apple wants to make cars look awesome again! Facebook made robots with hands! And Microsoft wants to make sure you're still awake! It's an exciting time for the future of tech, even if the present is driving you a bit stir-crazy.
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.
Not that many of us are leaving home much, but in that distant future when the world returns to normal, Google wants to be in charge of looking after your kids. Its vision for the future relies on sensing how many people are in a room, who they are, and controlling lots of internet-connected devices around the house. The virtual assistant in charge would be able to remotely lock doors or disable electrical sockets to keep small kids safe. It'll likely leave them feeling like Dave Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey" — including when their house has doors that Google Assistant won't open.
Google is apparently looking into using light — rather than radio waves — to send information from one smart device to another. This idea, often referred to as "Li-Fi," has been bandied around for years: The concept is basically that light emitters could transmit a lot of data far more accurately in a confined area than traditional Wi-Fi. As the patent suggests, this could be useful for sharing information you only want shared in one room (as light can't pass through walls or other opaque objects), like encryption keys. Nobody's yet been able to commercialize this concept; sounds like a good moonshot to me.
If you've ever bought anything that's advertised online, you've likely had the mildly frustrating problem of continuing to see ads for it all over the web. There have been many times where I've wished I could click on an ad and tell Google/Amazon/random DTC brand, "I already bought this product, please show me something else." (Facebook used to have an option like this, but inexplicably got rid of it.) It seems that Amazon is working on something similar, where you could tell advertisers that you already have a product or don't want to see any more ads for it. Now, if they could only figure out a way to do the same thing for subway ads.
Right now, Amazon's main delivery drone design requires the drone to land, plop down the package, and take off again before you can pick up what you ordered. It's efficient, but also a bit dangerous, as you can't be anywhere near the drone until it's safely back in the sky. Other companies, like Alphabet's Wing, use a winch system to lower the package down to you while the drone hovers overhead. It seems like Amazon is looking into doing something similar with its drones — in this case a tether system that would allow the drone to stay airborne while it lowered a package to you. Now there's no risk of ending up like Enrique Iglesias.
Sometimes you really don't want other people peeping at your laptop screen. You can buy one of those privacy filters, but then you're sort of broadcasting that there's something worth snooping at on your screen. Apple may have a solution in the works: A patent awarded this week describes a polarized liquid-crystal layer in a laptop display that could be switched on and off to give you privacy when you need it, without anyone necessarily realizing you're looking at something important.
I don't know if it's because I recently rewatched the "Back to the Future" trilogy, but I'm extremely excited for gull-wing doors to make a comeback. Apple's new patent outlines a hinge mechanism for doors on a vehicle that can open upward while not actually requiring a lot of space around the vehicle to open. Doors like these could be great for autonomous vehicles (which Apple is working on, in some capacity), making it easy for people and things to get into vehicles without doors in the way. It would also make it easier to get more cars into smaller parking spots, presumably. Add on a Mr. Fusion reactor and a flux capacitor, and you've got yourself a pretty rad time machine, too. I wonder when Apple will file a patent for that.
This patent is interesting for a few reasons: It shows that Facebook is doing fundamental research in robotics, something far outside its current business model, and it shows how small robots could be linked together to perform tasks they couldn't do on their own. That sounds like the start of something like Voltron, which I'm very here for. But the most interesting thing about this patent to me — and it may just be a crude representation in the drawings — is that Facebook gave the robots in this patent arms with little hands on top. I'm pretty sure they're supposed to represent grippers, based on what the patent says, but I love the idea of just walking up to a robot, giving it a solid high-five, and carrying on. What better use for robots could there be?
If you've been watching "Upload," you'll know that in the future, we'll apparently be able to get intimate with deceased lovers whose consciousnesses now live in the cloud through tactile VR suits. I'm not sure if that's the eventuality Facebook is preparing for with this new patent, but it's definitely a possibility. It outlines a set of haptic sensors that could be worn as sleeves or other garments that could re-create a sense of touch when interacting with a virtual world.
If you've made it this far through this week's list, you probably won't have any need for this patent. Microsoft is apparently looking at developing a system that could detect when you're starting to feel sleepy. The new patent describes using heart rate and brain activity sensors to determine when someone's getting drowsy. The sensors could be contained in a wearable tethered to a user's phone. For example, the sensors might pick up that someone's starting to get drowsy while they're driving, and their phone would ping them to suggest they pull over and find a hotel. If you've ever been on a long road trip and had to drive through the night, this could be a (literal) lifesaver.
Most noise-canceling earbuds will come with a few different sizes of rubber tips so they can fit as securely in your ear canal as possible, but they always seem to find a way to wriggle loose, breaking the seal and letting some of the world's sounds in. Microsoft's new earbud idea, which looks surprisingly like an AirPod, has an adjustable membrane around the earbud tip, so a person could find the exact right size for their ear and lock the membrane in on that shape. Hopefully whatever design Microsoft lands on is a little smaller than the wearable Pogs it recently released.