Microsoft wants to turn your shirt into a computer
Bringing your car with you, stopping stream sniping, AR privacy and other patents from Big Tech.
Welcome to the end another week in the longest January of all time! At least that means another patent roundup is headed your way. As ever, Big Tech had some great ones this week, ranging from the truly mad, like Microsoft computerizing fabrics, to Google making game controllers more interactive and Apple building software for cars that moves with you.
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 one brings me back to the days of the Sega Dreamcast. It was a beautiful, flawed console, but one of its most recognizable innovations was the VMU, a small device with a little LCD display that could display in-game messages and play little mini-games when undocked from the controller. Google's latest patent seems to be inspired by the ethos of the VMU, envisioning presumably another iteration of its Stadia controller with a small screen or speakers that could announce in-game messages or other notifications to the gamer without distracting them from the game they're in. Maybe they'll even release a Godzilla edition.
This patent does what it says on the tin. It's just a patent for the design of a large button in Waymo autonomous vehicles for passengers to press when they're ready to … go. Heaven forbid someone has a go button that looks like yours.
This is a big issue in the world of gaming: when you're streaming and someone playing the same game as you watches your stream to see where you are. It's like back in the old days when you'd play a game with your friends and cheat by looking at their quarter of the screen. This new patent from Amazon, which owns Twitch, aims to fix this, either by obfuscating pieces of information from the streamer so another gamer can't figure out where they are, or just blocking people watching the stream from joining the game altogether. Unfortunately, it seems like if you want to be a jerk, you could just log onto the stream from another device.
Perhaps Amazon is interested in getting into the precious gem and old Rolex game. This new patent outlines a system for using molecular-level sensors to determine an item's authenticity, purportedly to cut down on counterfeit goods. I could definitely see this being useful for items that can be relatively easily authenticated, like diamonds. But considering there have been countless issues with knock-offs and unsafe products hitting Amazon's site, perhaps there are other solutions worth looking into.
It sometimes feels as if the platonic ideal of an Apple product is a single piece of brushed aluminum and glass, unburdened by such trivialities as buttons and sockets. And perhaps this patent helps Apple get there: It outlines methods for creating buttons or sliders that can be hidden under another material. It could be something like a power button or volume controls embedded below the aluminum surface of a MacBook, which reveal themselves when illuminated. It's like the controls of the 2003 iPod, revived for today's devices.
Have you ever driven a friend's car and had to readjust everything to your preferences? The rearview mirror's in the wrong place, your seat needs to be much higher, you don't want the heated steering wheel on — it's just not how you drive. You might even have the exact same car as your friend, but it's not like you can automatically bring your setup preferences with you. Apple's new patent envisions just that scenario, with your car's system interacting with your phone and your phone then interacting with your friend's car. If Apple is serious about building software that future cars run on, this seems like a real possibility.
As Facebook and others continue to push augmented reality into the mainstream, it's working on ways to make sure you can still hear the world around you, but the world can't hear your conversations. Instead of jamming headphones into your ears and blocking out the world, Facebook is looking at ways of broadcasting audio, while blocking the sound to potential nosy passersby. The patent outlines a system where an AR device can detect sounds around it and block out projecting sounds to certain nearby areas based on where people are. It seems like it might just be easier to wear headphones, to be honest.
Have you ever wished your computer was actually just your shirt? Probably not, but what if your fabrics had more computerized parts? It's something Google has pioneered with its Jacquard project, and something Microsoft is apparently looking into. But beyond just weaving electronically conductive material into fabric, Microsoft's patent goes further, suggesting embedding things like "microcontrollers, integrated circuits, solar cells, [LEDs], batteries, conductors, actuators, switches, buttons," among other things. Perhaps someday soon you could literally wear your computer. If you wanted to do that.
Microsoft is continuing its recent trend of outsourcing creativity to AI with this patent. This particular patent is concerned with what search results pages look like, arguing "in addition to relevance and freshness, people want aesthetically pleasing search results." I haven't really ever thought about the aesthetics of what a Bing or Google search page looks like, but if an AI system could arrange and curate it to my specific tastes, I could see myself being more engaged with it. But half the time I'm just searching for the closest taco joint or when Chelsea is playing — I'm trying to spend as little time on the search place as possible and as much time eating tacos while watching soccer as possible.
As devices get smaller and smaller, it becomes more difficult to get all the important components in. Some things, like batteries, just haven't been miniaturized like others, so Microsoft is looking into ways to make them pull double duty. In this patent, it outlines a setup where an array of small batteries could also double as radio antennas. For small IoT devices, you could see a design like this being useful, where space is at such a premium.
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.