Microsoft wants to deliver to your car with drones
Robots digging cable lines, Facebook tracking IRL and other patents from Big Tech.
Congratulations on making it to the end of another week that felt like a month. Hopefully you can now use this day to kick back, relax and enjoy reading about some of the zaniest patents that Big Tech was awarded this week. And perhaps because it's a holiday weekend, these companies really delivered, including: Microsoft setting up the most dramatic drone deliveries ever; Facebook using robots to dig tunnels for fiber cables; and Amazon wanting to repaint roads for self-driving cars.
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 isn't a patent about Shel Silverstein, unfortunately. Waymo wants to make sure its driverless vehicles know where the road ends and the sidewalk begins; the intent is to be able to differentiate between objects generally found on the side of a road that a car might need to worry about, like a crosswalk. And in another patent awarded this week, it wants to make sure that any anomalies its cars come across as they traverse the world, such as construction in a lane of road, can be shared with all other Waymo vehicles in the area. Like Waze, but for Waymo. Wayzemo.
One way to make it easier to get self-driving cars on the road is to make the world easier for them to understand. Instead of making robots understand our road signs, we can make ones that only they can read. In the vision of Amazon's patent, that could mean machine-readable code painted onto roads next to lane markers. This could lead to cars having to store less information onboard about local road conditions, instead reading signs in the road that told them they were entering a low-speed zone or that a sharp curve is ahead. Pretty much like how we navigate areas we don't know, except without words and pictures.
Driving is pretty fun, but it might be a lot more fun to pretend you're a Jedi controlling your vehicle with a wave of your hand. Perhaps that's what the team at Apple was thinking with this patent. The goal seems to be to give passengers in autonomous vehicles a way to interact with the vehicle in case they need to change something about their ride, and using hand gestures is more inclusive than voice or touch. And also it's pretty cool to put your hand up, gesture vaguely to the left, and have your robot car take you to the Starbucks you decided you needed on the way to see your folks.
As rumors of Apple's potential augmented-reality glasses heats up, the company's patents are certainly doing nothing to dampen the chatter. This patent outlines a system for improving the accuracy of information overlaid on the real world in an AR setting, such as a mobile device, or as the patent says, in a "semi-transparent head mounted display." There's few details on what this (apparently costly) headset Apple is working on will look like, but it does seem that the company's patents are now getting down into the minutiae of what building a solid AR system would look like.
If you've ever wondered what your Facebook data might actually be used for, this patent might give you an idea. Facebook seems to be looking at ways to cross-reference its user base against radio beacons deployed into retail stores. So if you're a Facebook user and you've given Facebook the adequate permissions, a store with a beacon setup could see the demographic of every Facebook user (which is, in many countries, most people) who walks through their door. In the patent, the beacon could glean data like which customers are repeat visitors, how long they're in the store, their age, birthdays, loyalty status and other pieces of information that can be used to sell them more things.
Facebook has been working on building its own fiber networks for a while now, but it seems the company is also interested in finding novel ways to actually build those networks. This patent outlines a robotic drill that can be remotely controlled to dig a small tunnel underground and lay cable behind it in one action. It would have sensors onboard to help it avoid difficult-to-break substances, like hard rocks, while it moves underground. I'd also like one of these to redo all the wiring in my apartment that's hanging in front of the walls because I don't trust myself to drill holes like this.
This sounds more like something out of a "Fast & Furious" movie than something you'd see in real life, but Microsoft is apparently exploring the feasibility of delivering packages with autonomous drones while people sit in their cars. While there might be some benefit to delivering to your car in some situations — perhaps you want a pizza delivered while you're at the beach — I can't think of a lot of instances where whatever you're getting delivered you need while you're still in the car, as opposed to dropped near you in a field or something safer. Unless you've just heisted some jewels and are making a quick getaway, but still want to make sure you get that thing you were up all night bidding on eBay for.
If you're anything like me, you have a very visual memory. I take a lot of photos, and invariably, I can't remember when I went somewhere or did something, but I did take a picture of it. Thanks to the magic of the cloud, I can usually fire up Apple or Google Photos and scroll back in time until I find what I was looking for, and then figure out when it was. Microsoft's new patent wants to make that a little easier, by ascribing life events to your calendar. So when you went on your big trip to Cancun over spring break three years ago, Microsoft would've flagged to you at the time asking if you wanted to add something like "Cancun Trip" and all the photos from while you were there to your calendar. You could then scroll back through that calendar and see exactly what you did when. It's like exporting your memory to the cloud.
It's like "Ready Player One," but more real. Microsoft has patented a set of wearable gloves that could provide a small sense of reality when playing VR games. The mechanized gloves would be filled with fluids that could contract the gloves to make touching virtual solid objects feel similar to real ones. The gloves could also vibrate to give a sense of haptic feedback in other ways. Imagine playing a baseball game where you could feel the weight of the bat in your hands and the buzz of the bat when you hit the ball. Hopefully future VR systems won't also be encoding the feeling of getting hit by a pitch, though.
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.