Get access to Protocol
It's an extremely weird time in this world, so anything that still has a sense of normalcy about it is quietly comforting. And it seems COVID-19 won't stop the bureaucracy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from publishing its weekly patents and patent applications, all of which were submitted long before the world was hit by this crisis.
This week we have ideas from Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft that range from the quaint (how robots corral themselves) to the futuristic (wearable computers made of … fluids). Time to dive in.
Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.
There's a very famous camera trick that Alfred Hitchcock popularized called the "dolly zoom" that plays with perspective while filming. Traditionally, it's required some expensive camera lenses and a camera dolly (little tracks to move a tripod along on), hence the name. But Google is apparently working on a way of using "light-field data" — information about the intensity and direction of light in a scene — to re-create the effect. Google acquired the IP of a light-field camera startup a few years back, so perhaps the company is getting ready to put some game-changing video technology into a future Pixel device. I can't wait to to remake "Vertigo."
Plenty of cars have blind-spot sensors these days, which warn you if there's a car in your blind spot. But the only way to avoid being in someone else's blind spot is just to be a conscientious driver. When it comes to robotic cars, which lack a conscience, that bit is a little harder. Waymo has a patent this week to design self-driving car software to address this. It would project rectangular buffer zones on either side of every vehicle traveling in front of a Waymo car so that it would know not to drive in the blind spots of cars around it.
Every good workplace needs a fire escape plan, involving how to get people out of the building and where they should reconvene. But what about robots? A new patent from Amazon envisions a system for moving robots to a designated safe area in the event of a fire. It maps out areas of an Amazon warehouse the robots can and can't move to in a fire, and designate a safe space to convene, such as behind a fire-resistant door. It's unclear if one robot would get a little hat and safety vest to lead all the other robots to safety, though.
Ever since the days of the Power Glove, I've longed for some sort of flexible, wearable computing device. It's highly unlikely that that's what Apple had in mind with this patent, but who knows. It outlines a system for a flexible, illuminated keyboard that could be incorporated into fabric. It's probably some sort of response to Google's Jacquard rather than a retro-futuristic gaming controller, but I can still dare to dream.
Apple's old standard computer mouse is not the most ergonomic, and according to this patent, the company seems to have finally realized that one size does not fit all hands, either. Here, the company patents a mouse that can expand its width and height to better support different-size hands. Not the most exciting thing, but a smart way to still offer only one mouse, while accommodating more body types.
It feels like with every passing week, we're learning a little more about Apple's work on a mixed-reality headset. This week, Apple has a patent application for a head-mountable computer system that can recognize inputs made in the physical world. For example, you could be wearing the headset, which is projecting a virtual keyboard in front of you, and you could tap away on those nonexistent keys and have the headset recognize what you're typing. I imagine that'll feel only slightly more awkward than typing on an iPad screen already does.
Interpreting your speech through your muscles
Facebook purchased CTRL-Labs last year, and is already reaping the patent benefits. A new patent from CTRL, that's now assigned to Facebook, outlines the company's rather ornate sensing system designed for "using neuromuscular information to improve speech recognition." This could prove useful for some future voice-based AI system Facebook is working on, or could be a stepping stone along the way to its goal of building a brain-computer interface. I can't wait until Facebook knows everything I'm thinking all the time. Maybe then the targeted ads will finally be accurate.
This is a pretty wild idea: Instead of using electronic transistors, what if you used ones that relied on fluids? It's not a new idea — the company Fluidigm has been working on it for decades now — but Facebook seems to be looking into using these flexible, fluid circuits for wearables, especially for VR applications where you don't really want bulky electronics to take you out of the experience of the world you're in. Maybe those fancy bodysuits from "Ready Player One" aren't too far off.
Microsoft hasn't had the best luck with bots in the past, so if it ever progresses with this idea, it'll be … interesting … to see how it's used. The patent application outlines a chatbot that can be taught to rhyme or come up with poems, and challenge the human it's chatting with to do the same. The application suggests text-based "rap battles." I have no idea who would want to re-create "8 Mile" with a chatbot (perhaps an extremely bored child who's been cooped up inside for weeks?), but I'll leave you with a truly amazing example rhyme from the patent — may it bring you a moment of distraction from the world:
"Here's a skill I had, that you didn't know";
"Rhymes with code just like falling snow";
"Rhyme with me, go toe to toe";
"Maybe you can match my glow."
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.