Power

Alphabet's implanted sensors and Amazon's socially distant book club

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things. Most never amount to anything, but others end up defining the future.

Women laughing at a book club

Remember when we used to hang out with other people? Maybe while discussing a book? That was fun. That time has passed, for now, but Amazon has a solution, according to a patent filing this week: a socially distant book club.

Photo: The Image Bank via Getty Images

The world may be grinding to a halt, but things at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are still full steam ahead. Maybe it's observation bias, but several of the patents from big tech this week would actually be helpful for our new, socially distant reality. There's remote book clubs, sales kiosks without people and even virtual karaoke. If the future requires us to stay physically isolated, the tech companies have plans for how to handle it.

Alphabet

Implantable Bluetooth devices that take your temperature

Who needs wearables when you could just get the tech implanted inside you? That's the question that a new patent from Verily posits this week. It outlines a small Bluetooth-enabled device that could be implanted into someone's arm muscles or chest that could talk to a smartphone, in the same way a set of AirPods or a smartwatch could. The device could have sensors onboard that could measure the person's temperature, blood pressure, oxygen level, or pH level, according to the patent. I very much do not want to know how they envision sending notifications to that device.

Smart clothes for better posture

My dad always told me to sit up straight, that it was good for my back. He's gone now, and I wish he could tell me that again. He would probably like this Google patent for garments with built-in sensors that judge your posture. While this might be useful information for people who sit at a desk all day, it could be game-changing for jobs that put a ton of stress on the body, like warehouse workers. Being able to track how workers carry out their tasks and let them know whether their posture needs to be adjusted could be the difference between an uneventful shift and a repetitive stress injury. Also your parents are usually right about stuff like this, even if you don't want to admit it.

Amazon

Socially distance book clubs

This patent couldn't have come at a better time. We might not be able to convene book clubs in person, but Amazon seems to be thinking about ways to bring literature lovers together remotely. The patent outlines a system that could live inside a Kindle where friends could all be reading the same book and see each other's progress. The system could disallow readers from reading too far ahead of others, presumably so you can all find out that Dumbledore dies together (Mike! Spoiler much?! — ed.), and even allow for the group to vote out members who have fallen too far behind. It's like "Survivor," but for you and your friends stuck at home on the couch.

Buying alone

Another patent that could be useful for our new reality: Amazon already has lockers that customers can choose to get packages delivered to, but it seems to be exploring letting people buy things on their phones and pick them up at specially designed kiosks. Instead of full-service Amazon Go stores, the patent outlines small kiosks with touch screens that are stocked with essential items that users can check the inventory of online. Want a new Kindle? Well, this kiosk three blocks away has one — buy it now, type in a passcode when you get to the kiosk, and deal with no humans to complete your purchase. Just make sure to wipe down whatever you buy when you get home.

Tracking in-store purchases

Not every inventory-monitoring system needs to involve computer-vision cameras dotted around a store or robots patrolling the aisles. Amazon's new patent outlines a pretty novel way of tracking whether products are flying off the shelves. It includes simple RFID tags on items — the key staples the patent diagrams include mild shredded cheese, video games, batteries and ties — and an antenna that can sense when one of the tags is removed from the area where the antenna is operating. When the shelf is out of products, someone could be alerted to restock with more. Not sure how many people are panic-buying ties right now, though.

Apple

Solar-powered gadgets

Apparently Apple is considering incorporating flexible photovoltaic cells — or solar cells — into its products. This patent outlines putting cells on the back of a charging case for a phone, or on the outer edge of a pair of headphones. It also lists just about every device you could think of, including phones, tablets, wearables, airplanes, cars and video game systems. This would be great for people who want to live off the grid, but still game.

Apple Watch add-ons

Apple is looking at ways to build extension devices for the Apple Watch, similar to how video game systems in the '90s had extensions you could plug in. This new patent outlines a device that could slide under the bottom of an Apple Watch and add functionality to the watch. The add-on could house additional sensors to extrapolate yet more health data from wearers or the world around them. The patent is thin on ideas of what those sensors could actually be, but one suggestion is an air-temperature thermometer. The add-on, which the patent adorably calls a "backpack," could also include an additional battery, which might be useful for people who'd like to use the watch to track their sleep — something Apple is apparently working on, but isn't feasible right now, given how often the watch needs to be charged.

Borderless screens

Apple likes to say in its iPhone marketing that its newer devices are "all screen," but that is not really true. There's a large cutout near the top and then a border all the way around. Now the company seems to be working on products where the front of the device truly is just a giant screen, and its approach is similar to what Samsung's been doing. The design includes curving the glass on the top of the phone around the edges, giving the impression that the entire front of the device is a solid piece of glass.

Facebook

Selfie karaoke!

Yet another helpful patent for these wild times. This patent outlines a video system where a person's face can be mapped onto a celebrity's in a music video, so you could look like Ariana Grande while singing "7 Rings" in your bathrobe alone in the living room. Unfortunately it doesn't look like the technology will make you sound like Ariana Grande, though.

Ear-rattling headphones

Facebook seems to be working on headphones that wrap around and inside your ear to deliver sound. This is similar to bone-conduction headphones, but instead of mildly vibrating your skull, these vibrate the cartilage in your ear. According to the patent, the setup has advantages over traditional earphones: they'd be smaller, take up less power, and have "less sound leakage," making them ideal for AR or mixed-reality glasses of the future. Assuming we go outside ever again and need such devices, that is.

Microsoft

Privacy in a world of smart glasses

When everyone has smart glasses that can record everyone else, how will there be any privacy? Well, there probably won't be much, but Microsoft has an idea for "a method to record video with a video camera while respecting bystander privacy." Microsoft's patent argues that with traditional video cameras, you know when you're being recorded, and can tell the person filming to stop. But when cameras are "integrated in eyewear, clothing or otherwise worn, a bystander may have no knowledge that he or she is being recorded and no opportunity to opt out." Microsoft's system could detect when someone is in the field-of-view of the smart glasses, and wouldn't film until the bystander confirmed that they're fine with being filmed.

Entertainment

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Photo: Google

Google is working on a new streaming device that caters to people with older TV sets: The next Chromecast streaming dongle will run its Google TV interface and ship with a remote control, but it won’t support 4K streaming. The device will instead max out at a resolution of 1080p, Protocol has learned from a source with close knowledge of the company’s plans.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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