Special Report: Patent Drop’s Gift Guide of the Future

Consumer tech is getting up close and personal this holiday season.

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In honor of Cyber Monday, we’re digging through consumer tech patents from Nike, Snap, Apple and more to get a sense of what holiday tech shopping may look like in the years ahead. Though the tech in these filings probably won’t hit the shelves in time for the holidays, they do have a running theme: Big Tech wants you to be plugged in wherever you go. 

Nike’s Got a New Pair of Shoes

Nike wants closer control of foot traffic. 

The retailer wants to patent “intelligent electronic footwear” and control systems for automated “infrastructure-based pedestrian tracking.” If you often forget to look both ways when crossing the street, these high-tech tennis shoes keep you from getting into an accident. 

Nike’s footwear uses an “Internet of Adaptive Apparel and Footwear (IoAAF) system” to control communications between an “intelligent electronic shoe” (IES) and an “intelligent transportation management (ITM) system.” The shoes are equipped with radio frequency transponders to send out signals that are picked up by detectors connected to stationary structures like buildings, lamp posts or traffic signal poles, or to vehicles themselves. 

Nike said this system “allows the connected parties to “see ahead” of an impending collision by eliminating the need for direct line-of-sight sensing and provides upcoming “awareness” before the IES is in close proximity to the vehicle.” 

Along with warning drivers of approaching pedestrians, these smart soles may come equipped with “audible, visible, and/or tactile warning to the pedestrian” that they’re about to be in danger, as well as may alter “pedestrian flow through modulation of crosswalk signal timing.” 

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Nike take an interest in making your shoes a little smarter: The company has previously filed to patent “intelligent footwear” for navigation assistance and activity monitoring devices in shoes that assess the intensity of your workout. But bear in mind that these benefits come at the cost of a whole lot of personal, physical surveillance. 

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Google and Meta’s high-tech four-eyes 

Tech firms seem to be really fascinated with being your accessory: Both Meta and Google filed patents for tech relating to artificial reality headsets. 

Let’s start with Google: The company filed a patent application for a system to adapt assistant suggestions rendered in “computerized glasses” based on changes in user gaze. Essentially, this changes your display based on what you’re looking at while wearing a pair of augmented reality glasses. 

The glasses have an embedded automated assistant that identifies environmental features, such as surrounding restaurants, shops or points of interest. If the user audibly expresses interest in a particular feature, or if the glasses predict that a certain feature is of interest through factors like gaze direction or known user data, then the glasses modify their suggestions or output within their visual scope. 

For example, if a user is looking at a strip of three restaurants, but just one of them is referenced in an upcoming calendar invite, the glasses can use this context to recognize one in particular as a point of interest, and pull up information within the user’s line of sight relating to the invite. 

Alternatively, if you’re worried you’re spending too much time with your screens, Google is seeking to patent a head-mounted device specifically for tracking screen time. This essentially tracks time spent across various screens using a field-of-view eye tracking camera. If you’ve been staring for too long, or are looking at certain screens when you shouldn’t be, the system may “display an alert based on one or more rules about screen time.”

However, we don’t know if these features will see the light of day. News broke in early 2022 that the company had an AR headset in the works under the code name “Project Iris,” but in June the company reportedly pulled the plug on those plans. Google is also reportedly experiencing setbacks with its planned mixed reality headset in partnership with Samsung

Google Computerized Glasses patent. Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 

Meta, meanwhile, may be looking to rival a certain feature in Apple’s upcoming headset: The company filed a patent for “reverse pass-through glasses” for AR and VR devices. 

This gives an outside viewer the ability to look someone in the eyes while they’re wearing a headset by projecting their eyes in real-time onto its outer surface. This device uses an internal “face imaging camera” that collects image data, then uses a “three-dimensional face model” to recreate “synthetic views of the face.”

While some systems can project what the user within a headset is looking at, “it leaves the onlooker clueless as to what is the state of mind of the user or focus of attention of the user,” Meta said.

Meta has been working on this for a while, publishing its research into creating what it calls “social co-presence” with this feature in 2021. But with Apple’s upcoming Vision Pro having a nearly identical feature called EyeSight, depending on how exactly Apple’s feature works, Meta securing this patent could create a sticky situation for the companies. 

Snap has its eyes peeled

While Google and Meta toil away with headsets, Snap wants to bring mixed reality a few inches closer. 

The social media firm filed a patent application for an “AR/VR enabled contact lens.” Snap’s filing details a system to stream “virtual content on a contact lens,” switching between an unobstructed view and displaying the content depending on environmental conditions that trigger it.

For example, if the contacts enter or exit a certain “geofence” or other geographic locations, they may switch from VR to AR. Users can also request particular operating modes, and the lenses will simply turn off if they run out of power, allowing the wearer to see through them unobstructed. 

In the AR experience, a user’s view is only partially obstructed, as it layers content within the user’s actual field of view. In a VR experience, a user’s view is entirely obstructed and a user’s eyes can only receive light associated with virtual content, creating “a perception that the user is in a virtual environment.” 

So how does this even work? Snap said the contact lenses may be charged with “electromagnetic energy (inductance energy) from a power source included in the case.” LEDs embedded in the contact change color to represent things like battery charge level and activity mode, and the lens automatically turns on when coming in contact with a body part. Snap’s filing also mentioned that the lenses may have tiny cameras that record video (because why not?). 

Snap’s argument is that this high-tech contact can increase efficiency by users not needing to switch between AR and VR devices, which “can be daunting and distracting and take away from the overall use and enjoyment of such systems.” 

“The contact lenses reduce the overall complexities involved with providing AR or VR experiences on a device,” Snap said. 

If you feel like you’ve seen this before, it’s because this is reminiscent of an episode of Black Mirror. Quite the selling point, right? 

Whether or not a mixed reality contact is even possible, this kind of tech isn’t unexpected for a company like Snap: The firm has spent years trying to get its AR spectacles off the ground, including with patents for prescription AR glasses and gaze tracking

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Apple listens up 

Be honest with yourself: How much time have you wasted looking for a missing earbud? Apple is working on something for that. 

The iPhone maker is seeking to patent new designs for “improving earphone stability.” Essentially, this invention adds an anti-slip mechanism to the surface of the earbud to secure it within the wearer’s ear. Apple lays out a few ways this may work, including a protruding anchor that hooks into the wearer’s ears and what it calls “regional friction zones” that add “grip” in certain locations. 

The anchor offers a way to secure a headphone despite the differing sizes of the “anti-tragus structure of a user’s ear,” which, if you’re not an otolaryngologist, is the little nub on the left side of the ear that can help keep an earbud from sliding out. Apple claims these anchors offer “a simple but secure fit that accommodates many different ear types,” and are particularly helpful for exercising or other activities involving “head acceleration.” 

Apple’s AirPods are a hit among consumers, with the company’s headphones taking up more than 30% of the wireless headphones market last year. But its latest model isn’t selling as well as previous ones, according to Bloomberg, and the company is working on a refresh of the earbuds’ product design, cases and audio quality.

Photos via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.