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It's been another long week in lockdown, but thankfully the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved some truly fascinating patents this week to take our attention away from … everything else going on these days. Google is looking at building a selfie ring and fixing distracted driving, Facebook wants you to tag the real world with AR, and Microsoft really wants to help you avoid your problematic ex. I could definitely see these three patents going together well in the future.
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 sounds like something that could equally appear on "Black Mirror" and my own finger. Google has a new patent for a smart ring that doubles as a small selfie camera, because heaven forbid you're ever without a camera to capture every moment of your life. It even features a tiny button below the camera to capture the selfie, so you wouldn't need a second device to take the photo. The future rules.
Voice assistants have long struggled with languages spoken in accents that differ from those they were trained on, and it seems Google is trying to figure out how to solve this. It's building up a library of different accents, according to this patent, to classify and understand languages in various accents. Some of them are ones you'd expect, like a Southern drawl or a Boston accent, but then some are extremely specific, like Australian English with an Indonesian accent; some are just random, like "U.S. surfer" and Australian scuba diver. What exactly does an Aussie scuba diver sound like? Is this the setup to a joke I should know?
People are going to hate this, but honestly, it's a great idea. Phones are extremely distracting when you're driving, and even though we all know that, we still use them behind the wheel. This idea from Google would basically block content from being shown while in motion. Unlike other "do-not-disturb" driving modes that can be circumvented, this would be built into the phone's software to deny access to certain programs when you're traveling quickly, such as blocking access to YouTube videos while driving. But the question of how to determine whether the phone owner is driving is still a tricky one; to avoid compute-heavy processes like eye-tracking software, the patent suggests using an algorithm to determine whether the user's reaction time appears to suggest they're doing something else.
Amazon's Go stores use a range of sensors to track you and the products you select as you move through the cashier-less experiences, and that system apparently includes magnets. This patent outlines a floor made up of a series of electromagnetic tiles that, when paired with some other sensor (a phone, perhaps?), can help track how many people are moving through a space, and where exactly they are. During a socially distant time, a system like this seems especially valuable.
The latest Apple Watch software update has a nice little feature that recognizes when you're washing your hands and counts 20 seconds for you, helping you follow CDC safety guidelines. If you're like me, though, you don't want to roll up your sleeves before washing because if you had COVID-19 on your hands, you'll get it on your sleeves. You likely end up with wet cuffs and an Apple Watch that thinks you're touching all over the screen. This patent aims to fix that, by essentially guessing that when a large amount of input comes from the side of the watch closest to a sleeve, it should probably ignore it.
Remember the mid-2010s, when tagging people on Facebook was still a thing you did all the time? Facebook apparently wants to bring that experience back — for the real world. AR glasses aren't really a thing yet, but Facebook is preparing for that apparent eventuality with a patent that's exploring how we can digitally tag our friends and interests IRL. That could be something like tagging a friend to tell them to check out a piece of art at a museum they'd like, or to remind someone of a restaurant you've loved in their neighborhood. It's a neat concept that definitely won't turn into digital graffiti all over the physical world.
This is a really interesting idea that seems to have been pioneered by researchers at Dartmouth College and acquired by Facebook. It's essentially a patent for a prosthetic device that can create haptic feedback for amputees. The device, as it's shown in the patent drawings, could be a robotic gripper arm attachment with sensors in the grippers that correlate to haptic actuators next to the wearer's skin. When pressure is applied to the grippers, the actuators would pulse or vibrate to give the wearer some sense of touch. Facebook is far from the only one researching this, but if technology like this proves to be successful, it could be a huge boon for the amputee community.
Remember Clippy? He was that little paperclip icon on Word that tried to help you make better documents while really just being distracting and annoying. If you wanted to recreate that feeling for documents you manage for others, you might be in luck. Microsoft is exploring tools that would let users create document-specific assistants to help others who use them glean the contextual information they're after. Sadly, it's unclear if these assistants can be made to look like an anthropomorphic paperclip.
Sometimes hiring managers aren't always aligned on what a job title should be relative to the job's responsibilities. As a result, candidates may miss out on roles they'd be a good fit for if they use search terms that don't correlate with the posted listings. Microsoft is exploring deeper search criteria, like cross-referencing industries, skills required and length of experience, to help surface results that might be useful to a job seeker. Hopefully this will ensure no one ever confuses an Assistant Regional Manager with the Assistant to the Regional Manager.
This patent has one of the most relatable titles I've ever seen: "Undesirable encounter avoidance." It also has a wonderful little story included in the copy about Alice and her friends Bart, Chris, Doug and Emily. Using social media and GPS, Alice can find out if she's near her friends (if they've all opted in), and if any of them are going to her favorite coffee shop. But when Alice breaks up with Bart, she might want to avoid the coffee shop if he's there. Microsoft is proposing using that same location tech to make sure Alice and others can avoid awkward situations IRL. Finally, a fantastic use case for the digital panopticon Big Tech has built.
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.