Patenting science fiction

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Published: May 21, 2015 12:19 AM

Patents are taking a step towards an imagined future

Multinational corporations which fund research routinely file patents that they may operationalise, sell, hoard or just forget about at a later date. This year, some of them have been quietly patenting devices and applications that are straight out of the pages of science fiction. The latest could have been named ‘Son of Google Glass’, except that it has been developed by Microsoft. Stripped of the bizarre techno-legal cant in which patent claims must be filed, US Patent No 9019174, favouring game producer Robert Jerauld, describes augmented reality spectacles which scan people in the wearer’s field of view and delivers their ‘computed emotional states’—it tells you how they feel. This technology is straight out of Philip K Dick, fit to be banned from boardrooms and blackjack tables. It is fit to be banned everywhere, actually, since it opens a new front in the relentless, ongoing invasion of privacy. Besides, knowing the truth about every human interaction is not something that the average human can bear with equanimity. We need our little half-truths.

Microsoft’s glasses pick up audio and video of its subjects and compare body language, posture and observable signs like flushing with online human and primate databases (is there a difference, really?). The company has been interested in augmentation but its earlier efforts were less revolutionary. In 2012, a patent went to Kathryn Stone Perez of the XBox incubation unit for a system which tags objects in the visual field with information available about them, without interfering with the viewport in the way that RoboCop’s live data feed or Luke Skywalker’s targeting system did.

‘Objects’ could refer to animate and inanimate entities—a horse, a jockey and a track could constitute a system of entities. Layer on the performance record of the two living beings, along with the ambient temperature and relative humidity, which alters the behaviour of the track, and a punter observing the race through Microsoft’s glasses would suddenly have an unfair advantage over the other sporting gentlemen. It would be a specific betting advantage, limited by the format of the sport. But let ‘Son of Google Glass’ lose in the game of life which we play every day, and it would become a foregone conclusion.

In March, Boeing flew higher than Skywalker with Patent No 8981261, securing the rights to a technology that’s straight out of Star Trek and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories—the force field. Filed by Boeing researcher Brian J Tillotson, it is not a real force field as envisioned in sci-fi, which constantly blocks access to all hostile incoming influences, from energy beams to ballistic missiles. Boeing’s concept—there is no working model yet—only detects impending shock waves and ‘attenuates’ their energy. Having detected the wave, it uses an electromagnetic arc to ionise the intervening material, whether gas or liquid. That scrambles and absorbs some of the energy which would have impinged upon the target, reducing or even cancelling the damage inflicted. Someday, such a gizmo could provide cover to strategic assets, just like in the movies.

Patent No 20150123965, filed by David Molyneaux of Microsoft and awarded last Thursday, describes an augmented reality system which is spawned by a trigger event and overwrites parts of the real topography with ‘synthetic image elements’. Multiple objectives could be served by such a synthetic environment. You could use it to tune out of a boring party and play paintball with fellow bored guests in, say, a simulation of the Oval Office.

Or you could overlay unpleasant parts of your personal environment with something more cheerful. Theoretically, you should be able to paper over the boss with a pleasant picture of sunset in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand. The patent application states: “It will be understood that the configurations and/or approaches described herein are exemplary in nature, and that these specific embodiments or examples are not to be considered in a limiting sense, because numerous variations are possible.” Sounds like it was dreamed up for gaming environments, but its makers know that it will flourish in real life.

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