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The patents roundup is back! I took a week off to get the recent Protocol Manual on health care up and running, but now I'm back to show you all the bizarre patents that Big Tech has filed since we last connected. And thankfully, things are just as odd as when I left them: Microsoft wants to redesign how we get the news, Apple wants to make car phone holders, Google is still a fan of "The Simpsons," Facebook is into dad rock, and Amazon is thinking about big topics … like shopping baskets. It's good to be back.
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.
This patent explores how search results can be tailored to better reflect users' interests and find the information they're searching for more quickly. Using information from social media accounts, Google would be able to tell if a given person searching "apple" was more interested in the electronics company or the fruit. And if they're a fan of "The Simpsons" (as suggested by the wonderfully arcane screenshot included in the patent below), a search for "animation" would throw up images of Homer and Bart rather than random cartoons. I'm hoping Google implements this soon: As a lifelong fan of Chelsea FC, I would very much like Google to stop alerting me when Arsenal scores.
This patent isn't exactly world-breaking, but it's pretty neat. Amazon patented a design for a shopping basket that's essentially two baskets in one: a hard plastic basket like the ones you see at just about any grocery store, and a thin removable one that you can pick up once all your shopping is done. It's a simple idea that might make getting through the grocery store slightly faster, but I wouldn't want to be the person whose job it is to reinstall the lining every time one of the baskets is used.
Amazon is slowly but surely working on its drone-delivery service, and this patent suggests it's looking for innovative ways to test its drones, even indoors — which is probably useful given everything going on in the world right now. Many autonomous systems are tested in virtual environments as well as the real world, but Amazon's patent is a blending of the two, using virtual 3D worlds for sensing algorithms to fly around in, while also connecting to an actual drone to test things like response times in moving parts that you just can't easily simulate.
Apple continues to do … something … related to the future of cars, as several patents in these roundups have shown, but this patent feels a little closer to the current reality. We all have smartphones, and other than awkward cupholders and glove boxes, there's not really anywhere in the car to store them safely, especially if you want to use them for driving directions. Apple's patent outlines a series of designs for phone holders that look pretty similar to what you'd find at a truck stop. The holder would use magnets to keep the phone securely in place, but it's not clear whether they'd be ones built into an iPhone, or something you'd add on later, which, again, is already a very common thing. The patent does suggest potentially having the dock connected to power and allowing the phone to charge wirelessly while sitting in it. That suggests that it's using the electromagnets in the back of an iPhone to stay in place, which would definitely be useful.
Apple is apparently looking to pull a Samsung and build a foldable device with an additional screen on the outside. Foldables were all the rage before the world went into lockdown, so it'll be interesting to see if that trend continues once we can go back out into the world and need any screens other than large TVs for Netflix and phones for Zoom calls. Apple's design in this patent puts a small second screen on the outside of its tablet so that you can still get notifications or other pertinent information while the device is closed, without adding the heft of a full-fledged second screen. It does feel like something that could be negated by just throwing in an Apple Watch with the purchase of a device that will almost certainly be extremely expensive anyway.
Facebook is not the first company that springs to mind when most people think about medical tech, but that has not stopped it from filing this patent. In reality, it's most likely linked to the company's brain-computer interface work, which aims one day, presumably a while from now, to replace mice and keyboards with our very own thoughts. Hopefully that won't actually involve devices like the one described in this patent, which is apparently implantable through a "subdermal insertion with minimal tissue damage." I just shivered typing that phrase.
I'm sharing this partially because the art in this patent is truly spectacular. Whoever drew this is a fan of '80s rock, "Bob's Burgers" and 2012 U.S. presidential nominees — and apparently got married in 1987. The patent basically outlines being able to glean information from one social media user's account for another user to make things like curated playlists for the first user. In the example given in the patent, a daughter makes a playlist of music that was popular in 1987, as it seems that's when her dad (a Mr. Bob Burger, who happens to be friends with some guys called Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) got married. It seems to be a cute way to share digital presents between loved ones, but also, I love that these song titles seem to have been recalled from memory by the patent artist:
Like many longtime internet users, I miss Google Reader. I'm not sure if Microsoft's latest patent would be quite the same, but it appears the company is looking at ways to modernize news consumption. On most sites, you have to scroll to the bottom to read the comments (if they still have those). Microsoft wants to make reader comments front and center in this design, with comments floating above the article. It seems like a function that is already served by Twitter and many other apps, and whoever wrote this patent seems to be a big Xiaomi fan, but who knows, maybe this is the app the news media has been missing.
Touchscreen devices with styluses are great, but you don't always want to be switching back and forth between holding the device like a piece of paper to draw on it and like a laptop to type on it. Microsoft's new patent could be a solution: It envisions a device that looks a lot like its current Surface line of tablets, with the removable keyboards and kickstands, but with a new space next to the trackpad just for taking notes with a stylus. It'd be like having a pen and a pad on your laptop at all times, if that's something you needed.
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.