Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI
Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.
Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.
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.
Even after nearly a year at home, some people have still not figured out the best way to set up their digital meetings. They're either too close to the camera or so far away they might as well not be there. Part of the problem lies in the cameras they have available, as many webcams are too wide-angled: No one needs to see what's 8 feet to either side of you on a Zoom call. But this recent Google patent might help; it involves the meeting platform being able to gauge how far you are from the camera (by measuring the proportions of your face) and zooming in on you when you're speaking, hopefully making everyone look a little more uniform. The patent also included this wonderful diagram to explain it, which appears to have been made in Microsoft Paint:
Everyone is shopping online far more than ever before, meaning ever-more cardboard boxes are littering our homes and recycling facilities. Amazon's new patent aims to help rectify this by creating a system that allows customers to easily reuse boxes that products come in. It's trying to remove all the steps usually found in shipping — such as weighing your package, getting a price to ship and bringing the package to a shipping facility — and replacing them with software. You'd scan the box you have and what you're trying to send, and Amazon's app would recognize what it is and estimate how much it'll cost to ship. You then pack it up and a courier comes to retrieve it. Now your friends and loved ones will never be without their Bad Monkeys.
If you're making a playlist to work out — or perhaps you're a spin class instructor looking for songs with specific tempos — this idea might be for you. Amazon's patent suggests creating a way to search music to download based on songs' beats per minute. If you want a mix of slow songs to cool down with and uptempo ones to rock out, this could be useful (and is similar to something Pandora offers today). Or if you want a playlist that includes the fastest music ever to help you write faster, this could help. Or maybe that's just me.
Have you ever been sent a PDF that you're supposed to download, print, sign, rescan and email back, and then you lost the file in your downloads, opened up an old version and had to hunt down for the right one before you sent it back? Maybe you're not as scatterbrained as me, but Apple's new idea for a system that allows you to just interact with an attachment that needs to be sent back to your correspondent without leaving the email program sounds like a dream. A better dream, though, would probably be to get rid of random attachments altogether.
If you've ever been the third person on a road trip and wanted to sit in the middle seat in the back, you've probably gotten stuck with a seatbelt that's a bit too small; the middle seat isn't quite as large as the other two. This new design from Apple would essentially recognize where you sit in the backseat and move the entire seat belt machinery along so that you would be comfortably strapped in wherever you're sitting. It would also automatically reveal the buckle, so you wouldn't have to spend time hunting for where it's gone. This all sounds like it would make losing out when someone calls "shotgun" a little more bearable.
Apple hasn't been without Jony Ive for very long, but it seems it's going ham on truly zany design concepts in his absence. In this patent, Apple explores various ways to combine a holder for AirPods and a stylus into a folio-style case for an iPhone that could also charge your peripherals and potentially display messages on the exterior. If Apple could pull this off in a way that didn't lead to a giant lumpy mess in my pocket, I'd potentially be interested, but the drawings in the patent are … less than promising:
Facebook is still pushing hard to make interacting in VR the future of … interacting … and this patent might help things feel a bit more natural. It suggests using cameras mounted on a VR headset pointed back at you to map real human facial expressions onto your digital avatar. Most VR programs with avatars either have faces that don't move when you're speaking or they just flap their mouths wildly; a system like this could make talking to someone dressed as a wizard or an elf or whatever else they've chosen to represent themselves online feel at least a little more normal.
Microsoft is apparently looking into application-specific virtual assistants, such as one designed for use in a car. It's a Car-tana, if you will. The assistant would be designed to provide specific insights about driving and how you could be saving money. That would include things like preemptively letting you know when a part might need servicing, how many miles it's been since you last fueled up or that your electric car's charge is low and chargers are nearby. It could announce these things over the car's stereo system, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road.
Who needs musicians? Microsoft's new patent seems to want to make them obsolete. It suggests a system that can take an input, like a picture or some text, and turn it into a song. It can identify elements in the input, like the sentiment of the words or aspects of the image (like if people are outside or in a crowd) and build a melody and lyrics off of that. Sadly, as this is just a written document, there are no examples of this concept's potential output, if Microsoft has even built something like this. But if it does prove to be possible, I've got the perfect robot to perform this system's songs.
Microsoft is really on the art-generating bandwagon this week. This patent outlines a similar idea to the last one, envisioning a system that can take what someone is saying and turn it into images. The system could even string together generated images into a sort-of picture book: You could narrate a day you've had to the AI, and it generates something like a series of Instagram Stories based on what you say to it. Though it'd probably just be easier to actually take photos of what happened, honestly.
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.