Get access to Protocol
Welcome to a special Monday edition of the Big Tech patent roundup! Hopefully you're reading this while waiting for your grill to heat up or socially distancing yourself at the beach. If not, go outside and enjoy the day off, then come back and learn about what Big Tech has in store for our future. Up this week, safer noise-canceling headphones, AR maps, flexible tablets and emotion-recording AR glasses. Maybe just stay at the beach, honestly.
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.
If you've ever worn a pair of noise-canceling headphones while out in the world, you'll know how easy it is to get lost in the music and … almost get hit by a truck while crossing the road. Google's new patent aims to make wearing headphones a little safer. The concept in the patent is to have sensors on the outside of headphones that can help glean what you're doing while wearing them: If you're out running in a busy downtown area with lots of traffic, the headphones could automatically switch between noise-canceling and a transparency mode so you're not hit with an unexpected surprise.
The concept of using software to figure out what song is playing isn't new — even Google's own ability to listen to the world around a smartphone and pick up songs playing has been around for a couple years — but I have to give props to the patent artist here for the song they chose to illustrate this idea. If you somehow haven't heard "Sandstorm" by Darude, you must listen to it right now.
Sites like Amazon already track you around the web to show you ads and see where else you're shopping, but what if they did that in real life? A new patent from the retailer explores how devices could be used to track the movements of potential customers to greet them when they show up at a store, based on how they're traveling. This could be useful for Amazon's subsidiary Whole Foods, which offers grocery pickups (which are especially useful during this pandemic), but could also be used to offer targeted discounts or messages to shoppers as they show up to shop in the store.
Ring's ties to law enforcement have been well-documented at this point, but this new concept seems to close the loop between doorbell owners and the cops. Amazon's patent is for a function in the Ring app where anyone picked up by a Ring doorbell could be recorded and have that video sent by the owner to the police with one button, or even call the cops right from the app. How convenient! Also: If someone who looks like this stick figure ever tried to rob your house, I wouldn't worry too much.
Apple has had a few patents recently around interweaving electric circuitry into fabrics, and this week it was awarded two more. One of them deals with how to actually put circuits into individual fabrics, and the other is something that reminds me of the single greatest gaming peripheral of all time: the Power Glove. It's basically a mesh fabric glove that could be used to control things like VR in a way that would feel more natural than the controls on the market today. I can't wait to use it to control a 2D-racing game with a pair Wayfarers on.
This is a pretty neat idea from Apple, for a device with a wraparound, flexible display that can be folded into any shape you want. This is an objectively useful concept, and I could see folding up a tablet or phone so it can prop itself up for video calls or for use as a laptop, and then unfolding it to read a book. But with one of the concepts in the patent, for the tablet folded into a triangular prism, I couldn't help but think of "The Office." Ten years ago, the show parodied Apple's iPad with The Pyramid, a triangular-shaped tablet that made very little sense, but is, after all, "the strongest shape ever constructed, a shape that fits all other shapes inside of it."
Apple is trying hard to shed the early negative reactions people have had to its Maps program, recently adding in a ton of new features. It also seems it's trying to catch up with a feature that Google Maps has had for a while: augmented reality maps. This patent outlines overlaying directions onto the real world using an iPhone camera, where you could also search for locations from the AR function. Will this be the thing that gets Apple users to switch back from using Google Maps? Perhaps it'll take off when Apple does eventually release some sort of AR glasses that it's been working on for so long.
Can you imagine a world where you give Facebook access to the cameras, lights and other smart devices in your home? Facebook can. Its new patent explores what it would be like for the social network to have a function for controlling IoT devices. There could be some value in using a social network's graph to connect people together to see if they know each other and allow them to share IoT permissions via a social network, which the patent discusses, but it still seems like a stretch for Facebook to be the place where you control your home.
This feels right out of "Black Mirror." This new Microsoft patent suggests using sensors to glean the emotional state of someone wearing AR glasses and using that to trigger video recording. This could have some very lovely outcomes — like parents managing to capture their baby's first steps before they could possibly reach for a phone — but it also opens up some more troubling possibilities, assuming it could even work. The patent outlines some other moods that could trigger video recording, including "focused, engaged, distracted, bored, sleepy, confused or frustrated." It's not too much of a stretch to see this being used to monitor students' or employees' attention, or other situations where perhaps you don't exactly want someone recording — like the bathroom, perhaps.
Microsoft loves to talk about AI and big data in its commercials (especially if Common is in them), but it seems those ads are more than just bluster. This patent deals with precision agriculture, the concept of using computer-monitoring hardware and software to understand more about the land you're trying to farm, getting more out of the same amount of land. It outlines a soil-surveying device, with a radio antenna, that could connect to software to monitor things like soil moisture and electrical conductivity, both of which are important to tell you about the health of the land you're trying to farm. In the future, your farm could well be running Windows.
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.