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Patents Signal Invasive Future

Published on March 22, 2012 by in Columns

To anyone who’s been paying attention, it’s been a strange week.  “Hunger Games” mania has taken the country by storm, catapulting many of us into a futuristic, survivalist frenzy.  Last weekend, a quick survey of a popular news website offered stories ranging from “Recipes that satisfy your ‘Hunger Games’ hunger” to “‘Hunger Games’-inspired fashion.”  Another story laid forth a personalized “‘Hunger Games’ workout.”  (Anything for a click, right?)

Meanwhile, on the political stage, the GOP’s own version of the fight-to-the-death thriller was playing out before our very eyes.  But elsewhere, a series of stories quietly emerged touting new technologies that seem too futuristic to be true.

You might have missed the story about Google, and the patent the company filed last week.  The cyber-giant would like to begin implementing new technology to eavesdrop on your phone calls, detect “environmental conditions”—such as the sound of rain in the background—and target ads based on these conditions.  So, for instance, if you’re having a conversation and it’s clearly raining in the background, you might be offered an ad for umbrellas.

Google Logo

Google has developed technology to detect “environmental conditions” while listening to your phone calls.

It would not extend to the actual content of your conversation, however.  That is, if you’re talking about the Aggies, it wouldn’t offer an ad for tickets to next Saturday’s game.  Nevertheless, it’s still a little creepy.

One has to wonder why such a feature might even be necessary.  After all, with the GPS capability of nearly all mobile devices, and easy access to nationwide weather conditions, the company could easily implement such a feature without “listening in.”

But the intrusive creepiness doesn’t stop there.  The patent also covers technology that would detect the “environmental conditions” of photos and videos you take with your device.  (Snow seems to be the most obvious example; if there appears to be a lot of it in the background of your photo, you could be offered an ad for window-scrapers, firewood, or a snow shovel.)

Almost simultaneously, news emerged about a patent that Nokia filed for “haptic communications.”  In short, future technology could enable you to get a tattoo that would vibrate when you were receiving a phone call.  The tattoo would use ferromagnetic inks, which could be demagnetized before being embedded in your skin.  The design could, in theory, be anything you choose.  After your tattoo was finished, the ink would be re-magnetized so that it would respond to “external alternating magnetic fields,” presumably generated by your phone.  The vibration, or twitching pattern, could even be customized for specific callers—your mom, your girlfriend, your coworkers and buddies.  One must also assume that it could function with your phone’s alarm feature, quietly nudging you from slumber.

Nokia haptic tattoo

Nokia has patented tattooing technology that might, one day, let you know who’s calling you.

And then there’s Joel Braun, an inventor who has created the Go-Go Gadget of Less-Lethal Force.  (That’s my name for it, anyway.  He calls it the “Non-Lethal Weapon Mount With Modular Weapon Components.”)  Braun’s invention straps to your forearm and puts a variety of triggers in your hand—each controlling a common less-lethal technology.  It is at once a stun gun, a mace/pepper spray dispenser, a non-lethal handgun, and a high-intensity light blinder.  With a series of knobs, you can adjust the intensity of each function, and a canister that attaches to your back contains the munitions and disabling spray.

Whether any of these patents will ever hit the market remains anyone’s guess, but a future in which any of these ideas are achievable is full of possibilities.  And some of them are a little scary.

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 03/29/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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