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Hello patent roundup readers! It's been a while since I've brought you the latest Big Tech filings from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Blame Thanksgiving and the latest Protocol Manuals. But never fear: We're back now, and there were some truly great patents from the last few weeks. Amazon wants to edit content when it thinks you're sad and blanket the world in drone blimps; Apple is thinking about making long-living wearables; and Microsoft wants to digitally resurrect your dead loved ones.
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.
Keeping up with the news is a difficult task, even on slow news days (remember those?), but Google thinks it can solve it with automation. Based on things people have searched for and their general popularity, Google could send people daily or weekly digests of headlines. The system's algorithm would rank each item on how important it thought it would be to the user. A much easier solution: just sign up for Source Code.
Sometimes after a rough day, we turn to music, books, games or movies to cheer us up. But what if the content we ingested was specifically tuned to reverse whatever mood we're in? Amazon is thinking about using facial recognition to try to determine what mood a person is in by their facial expressions, and then tailoring — or even editing — content to fit the mood. If you're exasperated and just want something to zone out to, the system probably wouldn't show you "Love in the Time of Cholera." Maybe if you keep wearing a mask, the system won't know what sort of content to program for you.
Ever get down to the end of your jar of coffee beans and realize you don't have enough left for that morning cup you need? If so, Amazon's new patent might be welcome news. It outlines an internet-connected container that can gauge the weight of what's in it; if it's getting light, it can automatically reorder what you usually get. In this case, that could mean never being without your organic fair-trade medium roast coffee grounds ever again, which means more booked revenue for Amazon.
This looks like something out of Space Invaders. Apparently not content with the possibility of covering the sky in small delivery drones, Amazon seems to be looking into using blimps to monitor those drones, flying above them to track whether they're all doing as told. Can't wait to see Prime Air blimps replacing Goodyear at all major sporting events in the future — and everywhere else.
The Apple Watch is great, but all of the new features the company has introduced — like the always-on display and sleep tracking — really eat up a lot of battery. This new patent, though, could potentially go a long way to adding more battery capacity to Apple's watches without adding much more thickness. The idea is to basically incorporate tiny tubular cells into the design of the watch band — creating something that doesn't look wildly different from some of the bands Apple already sells today — that would still allow the watch band to be flexible. Just don't catch that band on anything!
Apple is also looking into making wearables that might feel a little less like wearing a small iPhone on your wrist. This patent outlines incorporating circuits into stretchy fabrics that could even withstand being put through the wash. While I'd prefer an Apple Watch that can last more than a day or two between charges, it would probably be pretty nice to have one that I can easily wash; they do get pretty grimy after a while!
On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog — apart from maybe Facebook. The company is looking into how it can recognize people even if they're not logged into the social network. The patent outlines some more obvious ways — such as cookies that follow your browser around the web — as well as some deeper tracking, such as remembering logged-in users' MAC addresses, IP addresses, device serial numbers and device model numbers. Very little stays secret online these days.
This is a concept I'm endlessly fascinated by. I wrote a very long story about the idea of turning all your digital correspondence with another person into a simulacrum of that person and the nature of humanity, and whether we are more than the sum of our digital parts. Turns out, Microsoft appears to be exploring that very question itself. This patent envisions a system for taking digital content from a person ("images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters," the patent says) and using machine learning to train a chatbot on replicating how that person would sound. Is this the future of customer service or a really creepy way to honor loved ones who've died? Maybe both!
If you're not extremely ornery like me, you've probably given up trying to maintain inbox zero and keep all the apps on your phone free of unread notifications. You'll have probably missed a few important notifications in the sea of spam emails, meeting invites, podcast reminders and whatever else pings your phone each day. Microsoft is working on determining the likelihood that displaying a notification badge will cause a user to either read the notification and do something about it, or to turn notifications off for that app entirely (something I do with merciless frequency). If the system decides it's more likely that they'll turn notifications off altogether, it might not show a badge.
We're having to do a lot on our own these days, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to have fun on our own. Microsoft is working on wearables that could be programmed to restrict motion to certain parts of the body, which would give the wearer a sensation of weight or touch. Done correctly, this could be used to simulate something like holding and shooting a basketball. Pair that up with an augmented reality system like HoloLens, and you've got virtual H-O-R-S-E on your hands. Who needs the NBA Bubble?
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.