Last week, a United States Patent and Trademark Office worker pushed through the publication of yet another document. These particular papers outlined a system to detect ultraviolet radiation (aka sunlight) and calculate cumulative UV exposure using metrics such as minutes spent outdoors, the time of day and the user’s location.
The filing entity was Apple.
The plan to integrate this new tech into future versions of the Apple Watch represents the brand’s latest play in the health tech sector and could potentially help with the three million skin cancer incidences that occur every year.
But you know what else UV radiation affects? The visible signs of ageing. We’ll come back to that.
In the past two months alone, this and two other patents from rival tech companies Amazon and Google have flown largely under the world’s radar, yet they represent huge signals about their plans in the years ahead.
On 9 October, the USPTO finally published a patent Amazon had filed back in March that outlines how Alexa could infer things about your physical and emotional health from your voiceprint. Jeff Bezos and his associates made no effort to conceal the fact that this emotionally intelligent Alexa will serve the consumer—and, of course, the company—by selling products and services to customers based on what Alexa thinks they might be in the perfect mood for.
If she detects an emotional abnormality (I’m deadly serious), she might suggest a bumper box of Maltesers and a bottle of Dalwhinnie—provided they’re available on Amazon, of course. I’d take both.
Meanwhile, 15 November saw Google granted a patent for virtual-reality shoes, doing away with the need for so-called "VR treadmills" if these sneakers ever get made. Critics are quick to point out Google may not have quite figured out how to stop people falling over in them yet, but let’s not let pesky details like uprightness get in the way of dreaming.
Patents are what companies file to protect ideas so daring that no-one else has thought of them, at least in the context that they’re looking to use them. By their very nature, they must be unobvious to domain experts, so it’s safe to say whatever’s going in a patent represents a step change in the field.
Patents that propose a change to the way consumers engage with tech have the potential to redefine consumer/brand interactions through the proxy of the device, platform or interface in question. Last time I checked, we are very much in the business of understanding and connecting people.
And, as we all know, the brands that place their customers at the centre of everything they do are the most valuable. I call them connected brands.
Remember that premature skin ageing? If your client is a skincare or beauty brand, they’ll probably want to know that 20 million-plus Apple Watch wearers around the globe could soon be more in tune than ever with their sun exposure levels. And if your client is a clothing or travel company, they might have some thoughts about how to leverage these new experiences too. Even though Apple doesn’t currently sell data to advertisers, and likely won’t start any time soon, this shouldn’t stop relevant brands from leveraging new consumer behaviours to their advantage.
As such, patents really can serve as a crystal ball. Do all patented technologies come to market? Of course not. The key to successful adland future-gazing through them is to concentrate on those relating to technologies that are already well adopted, such as smart assistants and wearable devices, or those on the cusp of democratisation, such as virtual reality.
If brands are concerned with putting their customers first, then we, in turn, should be relentless in solving our clients’ future problems. Creativity is paramount to commercial success and it’s our job to recognise that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places. A great start is uspto.gov.
Gracie Page is innovation lead at VMLY&R London.