Please Bear with Google: Oddball New Patent Raises Questions
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On Febuary 27, 2012, I chatted my friend on Google Hangouts about a nightmare I had, in which demonic stuffed animals followed me with their eyes and waited for me to turn my back so they could attack. On Febuary 28, Google patented my dark vision.
Just kidding, Google. I'll be good. Don't get Teddy. OK, half kidding. While my friend and I never had any such conversation, Google did file a patent.
Approved as of May 21, the patent is for an "anthropomorphic device" [evil toy] that watches for "social cues" and can control "one or more media devices." Upon detecting a social cue, the abomination would be able to change your audio and/or video entertainment accordingly, reminding me of the old jingle, "he sees you when you're sleeping/he knows when you're awake/he knows when you've been sad and will relentlessly play slow violin music until you fall into a deep depression and start drinking, for goodness sake!" Or something like that.
I was also not joking about the eyes following you around the room. From the abstract: "the anthropomorphic device [evil toy] may aim its gaze at the source of the social cue." This could be "movement and/or a spoken word or phrase." Basically, you cannot escape its eyes.
Its terrible, terrible eyes.
Maybe I'm being too hard on Google. After all, Microsoft has Cortana and Apple has Siri, but Google users are stuck chanting "OK, Google" when they want something (even Amazon has Alexa — more on that to come). Perhaps Google just wants to get in on that action. Wouldn't it be fun to say "Teddy, text Tom?"
Or maybe even that is taking it too seriously. It could simply be the next generation of Furby, or that robot dog that was popular for a while. Though even millennials hear "media device" and think of teens and up, the prevalence of cell phones among grade-schoolers means that this could still be just a toy. It's also remotely possible that the end result might be somewhat cute, in an uncanny valley sort of way.
It could also be a powerful tool Google could use to learn about the preferences of its clients. This isn't a new idea, though it's a controversial one. Microsoft's Xbox One, for instance, attracted quite a bit of negative press as it became know that the microphone would never turn off. Even with Microsoft insisting that the microphone would only recognize the words "Xbox on" and that data sharing would have to be deliberately opted-in to, widespread worries about privacy had some governments threatening additional regulation.
Sony faced similar worry with the Playstation 4, and to this day nobody can quite seem to figure out exactly how much information gets saved or distributed. The Amazon Echo is a better example, if a less popular one. Basically it's a Bluetooth speaker that plays music and can answer very simple, literal questions. It can also re-order previous Amazon purchases, though it's mostly not yet nimble enough to place new orders. Amazon's still working on that.
The Google teddy could work in much the same way, just creepier. Strictly speaking, this is not what the patent is for, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine. Fortunately, Google doesn't seem to be particularly interested in doing anything with it. As they told CNN Money, "We hold patents on a variety of ideas — some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't." Technically, though, they didn't say they're not building an army of these things, or that you won't find them in your kitchen at midnight.