Google is bulking up on patents to protect its new augmented reality glasses project from legal attack, with at least nine new patents issued in the past week to cover various aspects of the futuristic devices. The patents provide a glimpse into what a heads-up display from Google could provide to real-life users beyond what we learned when Google unveiled Project Glass last month.
Perhaps most interestingly, one patent shows Google is working on a system to help hard-of-hearing and deaf users detect and interpret nearby sounds. The glasses' heads-up display would show arrows and flashing lights to indicate the direction and intensity level of the sound, and even display the words nearby people are speaking.
The patent, #8,183,997, was issued to Google today and is titled "Displaying sound indications on a wearable computing system." The system would integrate a speech-to-text feature that determines the text of speech and displays it for the wearer of the glasses.
We should note that the patent does not specifically mention Project Glass, or even the word "glasses." It does, however, talk about a head-mounted device including lens-frames. At one point, it mentions a "head-mounted helmet structure," which makes the whole thing sound much more bulky than the augmented reality eyeglasses Google is developing. But one of the two inventors listed on the patent, Adrian Wong, is associated with Project Glass. Additionally, several of the images included with the patent show glasses that look quite similar to the Project Glass prototypes displayed by Google last month. Here's one of them:
Google hopes the technology will help people with limited hearing avoid danger. "A user may be at a crosswalk attempting to cross a street, and an oncoming car may be honking at the user in order to alert to the user that the car is driving through the crosswalk," Google notes in the patent description. "It may be helpful to indicate to the user the direction from which the honk is coming (e.g., from the left or the right), and the intensity of the honk (e.g., in order to indicate how close the oncoming car it to the user)."
Other aspects of the patent include a "finger-operable touch pad" on the head-mounted device for accepting user input and microphones spaced around the wearable device to ensure detection of sounds from outside the wearer's field of view. There would also be multiple video cameras to capture various views, and the option to "overlay computer-generated graphics in the user's view of the physical world."
In addition to speech transcription, the text indications could tell the user the source of a sound—for example, a dog, cat, human, musical instrument, or car.
Google gobbling up patents
The patent is one of six issued to Google today that seems directly or indirectly related to Project Glass. Another three were issued to Google by the US Patent and Trademark Office last week. Not all patents turn into actual technology, of course. Google hasn't provided a release date for Project Glass, and early versions may not include all features described in patents. It's also possible a version of Google Glasses specifically tailored to hard-of-hearing people could be released independently of a version targeting the majority of consumers.
Google's rush to patent the heck out of Project Glass isn't surprising. With both Google and its hardware partners facing lawsuits and patent licensing demands from competitors of Android, Google has begun playing the technology world's version of "mutually assured destruction," amassing patents to deter competitors from launching lawsuits. Legal experts say Google was late to the game in protecting Android, but the company appears to be making no such mistake with the Google Glasses.
Among the nine new patents we've mentioned, one covers a "nose bridge sensor" that automatically powers on the device, while others cover the basic physical design of the glasses and various software elements.
The aforementioned nose bridge sensor would send a signal indicating whether the eyeglass-display is in use. This seems designed to automatically power on the glasses when worn and power them off when taken off, sensing patterns such as breathing to make that determination. A short delay is built into the power transitions, and extra sensors are placed on the eyeglasses' arms, so jolting the glasses a bit shouldn't turn them off.
"Combining information of the two signals may lead to an inference that the HMD [head-mounted display] may have been lifted from a nose of a user but are still in contact with the side of a user's head (e.g., a user may lift an HMD to rub the user's eyes or nose)," the patent states. "In one example, power state transitions may be ignored when the inference is determined."
As for the physical design, four patents covering design elements describe the overall build and look of the glasses, while other patents focus more on the software powering the device.
For example, a patent on a method and system for selecting a user interface for a wearable computing device talks about determining what a user is doing in order to serve up the most appropriate user interface. An accelerometer may detect that a user is walking upstairs, causing the system to shift the interface toward the top of the display screen.
More new patents include one describing a system for processing objects for separate eye displays, which is fairly self-explanatory, and another titled Wireless directional identification and subsequent communication between wearable electronic devices. The latter patent discusses the use of infrared beams to exchange information between two people wearing Google Glasses.
Experts on augmented reality say Google Glasses face serious technical hurdles, suggesting that the futuristic scenarios shown in the few videos and pictures Google has released to tout the project go far beyond today's capabilities. But these new patents show, at least, that Google engineers have a vision in mind and are working to make it reality.