Google Chairman Eric Schmidt once noted that the patent system, originally designed to protect inventors, had degenerated into a swamp of lawsuits and creativity-killing delays. "These patent wars are death," he said in a 2012 chat at New York City's 92nd Street Y. "Everyone can find a prior art for everything. So the new trick is to get judges to block devices country by country. It's bad for innovation" [source: Ngak].
That aversion makes it all the more remarkable that Google has become one of the most prolific applicants for patents around. MIT Technology Review reported in 2013 that Google's brain trust of scientists and engineers was winning about 10 patents every day that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is open for business. Indeed, the company has become one of the top 10 patent recipients in the U.S. [source: Regalado].
Technology Review theorized Google quietly changed its view on patents to protect its Android operating system for mobile devices, after seeing the way that Apple did the same when it introduced the iPhone in 2007.
Many of its patents cover Android, as well as the search engine technology and other services that have been Google's bread and butter. Others have to do with game-changing future gadgetry that the Internet giant is developing, such as driverless robotic cars. But Google's innovation machine is also churning out even edgier innovations, many that might leave you scratching your head.
Here's a sample of 10 of the weirdest patents that Google has sought in recent years.
Back in ancient times — in online social networking terms, that's about 2006 — it was really cool to post a text message on Facebook to inform all your friends that you were vacationing in Hawaii, starting a new job or getting a mole removed at the dermatologist's office. (OK, some people do share a little too much information.)
But now that we've all read countless status updates, that medium has gotten a little, well, mundane. That may be why Google in 2010 filed a patent for a technology called "Self-Creation of Comic Strips in Social Networks and Other Communications." The latter would allow a social network user to post a multipanel cartoon online across a variety of networks.
According to the patent application, a user would select a theme, and the software would offer a cartoon, plus a title and text which the user could alter to suit [source: Sampath]. Google, which was awarded the patent in 2013, hasn't yet marketed the comic-creating app [source: Frank].
Every time you do a Google search for cute cat pictures, watch a YouTube video or send a message via Gmail, Google has to use electricity to provide those services. The global information giant burned up about 2.26 million megawatt-hours in 2010 — about the quarter of the output of a typical nuclear power plant [source: Albanesius].
Perhaps to reduce its utility bills, Google filed a patent application for a "Water-Based Data Center" in 2008. The latter would consist of a barge or cargo ship equipped to capture energy from tides and convert it to electricity, which then would be used to power row after row of computer servers for Google's global information network [source: Clidaras et al.].
While this might seem straight out of the old Kevin Costner dystopian sci-fi flick "Waterworld," there have been some hints lately that Google might actually deploy such floating facilities. The San Jose Mercury News reported in October 2013, for example, that Google was building a mysterious four-story structure atop a barge in the San Francisco Bay, for some secret purpose. The newspaper also reported that a similarly massive structure atop a barge was moored in a harbor in Maine [source: Bailey].
Google Glass, the technology giant's realized vision of a wearable, voice and gesture-activated computer with an optical head-mounted display that would resemble a pair of eyeglasses, would make us all into the equivalent of Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" movies.
But while that might theoretically free us from being deskbound and even from having to carry hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablets, in practice there still would be a tricky downside. If you're in a noisy environment, voice commands aren't going to work very well, and dictating anything longer than a brief e-mail is going to be a clumsy process for people who've spent their whole lives typing stuff into a conventional computer.
Not to worry, though. In 2013, Google filed for a patent for a technology called "Methods and Systems for a Virtual Input Device," in which the Google Glass headset would project a virtual keyboard onto a user's hand, turning it into a virtual smartphone-style touchscreen for the user's other hand [source: Newton].
The animated TV series "Futurama" once jokingly suggested that future smartphone users would have an "eye-Phone" attached to their eyeballs, but Google's idea of implanting a microphone in users' throats isn't that much more far-out of a notion.
The 2012 application by Google's Motorola Mobility subsidiary, titled "Coupling an Electronic Skin Tattoo to a Mobile Communication Device," would attach a digital tattoo — essentially, a tiny printed circuit — to the skin on the outside of a user's throat. (For those who associate neck tattoos with prison gangs, the device also could be embedded in a collar or necklace.)
The tiny device would include both a microphone and a wireless transmitter, for relaying the sound of the user's voice to a smartphone or other device. According to the patent application, such an implant would be advantageous because it would reduce background noise, so that "communication can reasonably be improved"[source: Alberth].
And if that's not exotic enough, there's more. Optionally, the throat tattoo could be configured to light up whenever the user's throat muscles flex. In addition, the designers say they also could include a galvanic skin response sensor, which would enable the device to function as a lie detector [sources: Alberth, Myslewski, Schreier].
One of Google Maps' most appealing features is its online collection of street-level photographic panoramas, which allow users to roam neighborhoods across the U.S. and in other countries as well. In addition to the usual street scenes, Google has begun posting 360-degree images of hiking trails in North America, which its photographers have shot using cumbersome backpack-mounted cameras.
In 2013 however, Google was granted a patent for a device that would make shooting such landscapes far easier. The application, titled "Walking Stick with IMU [inertial measurement unit]," basically is just that — a staff with embedded cameras and location sensors, coupled with a switch at the bottom that causes the cameras to snap pictures whenever the stick taps the ground.
While the gadget could be used by Google's own photographers, the patent application notes that similar technology could be repurposed in canes, crutches and other mobility devices used by disabled people. This would allow them to shoot and transmit pictures while their hands were otherwise occupied or if they had a condition that made it difficult to operate a camera [sources: Bishop, Ratner and Smith].
Google has made a mint over the years by making sure that it reaches search users with deftly targeted advertisements. But the growth of smartphones and other mobile devices connected to the Internet has created a lot more opportunities to suggest that you buy this product or dine at that restaurant, and the search giant apparently intends to take every advantage of them.
In a 2008 patent application titled "Advertising Based on Environmental Conditions," Google envisions equipping smartphones and other devices with a sensor that would detect temperature, humidity, sound, light, and/or the chemical composition of the air around a user. The mobile device would transmit that data back to Google, which then would use it to send ads targeted to the user's particular settings.
For example, if you're in a hot, humid locale, you might see an ad pop on your screen from an air conditioning manufacturer. And if you use your mobile phone while you're at an Adele concert, the technology could send you ads for music by other British female singers or for restaurants close to the concert hall [source: Heath].
This ever happened to you? You go to a restaurant with a bunch of friends, and the waiter will not allow split checks. So you offer to pay the bill, expecting to be reimbursed by the rest of the party for their share. The tricky part is, some of the group may "forget" to pay you back.
But don't worry; your days of reminding your friends to cough up may be coming to an end, thanks to a solution being developed by Google. In 2013, the company applied for a patent called "Tracking and Managing Group Expenditures." It envisions a software app — presumably for smartphones — that not only calculates how much is owed to the person who is paying the waiter, but also automatically transfers the money to that person's online account. Now all you have to do is get your friends to install this app before dining [source: Green et al.].
You may have read or heard advertising executives talk about how many eyeballs their ads are attracting, but Web page views don't really measure the impression that advertising is making upon people. There's no reliable way to tell how long someone looks at an ad, or the sort of impression that it makes. Or at least there wasn't, until now.
In 2013, Google was awarded a patent for a "gaze tracking system" in which a head-mounted device — presumably part of a computer system with video capabilities, such as Google Glass — would capture everything that the wearer gazes at, with an eye to spotting advertisements. (These either could be ads projected by the wearable computer, or else billboards, signs on bus kiosks, and other physical objects.) The system then would record how long the user looked at each ad, and possibly measure the degree of pupil dilation to determine how much of an emotional response the ad evoked [source: Neven].
We all want to make an impression on online social networks by posting witty replies to other people's tweets and Facebook status updates. But let's face it, being clever and pithy is hard work, and continually coming up with suitably saucy digital bon mots can take so much effort that it becomes almost a full-time job.
Wouldn't it be so much easier if your computer or smartphone helped you out? Once again, Google seems eager to come to the rescue. In 2011, the company sought a patent for "Automated Generation of Suggestions for Personalized Reactions in a Social Network." The technology would look at others' postings, dig up related information about the topics, and then automatically suggest "personalized" responses to them, based upon the app's recollection of how you've responded to postings in the past
When the program wanted to make a post, it would notify you first and ask for your approval. That precaution would save you the embarrassment of having your electronic clone post a seemingly intimate birthday greeting to a Facebook friend that you barely know [source: Bhatia].
Singer Taylor Swift may have popularized the gesture of using the hands to make the shape of a heart, but that hasn't stopped Google from trying to patent it. The company filed an application in 2011 titled "Hand Gestures to Signify What is Important," which seeks to lay claim to "a hand gesture forming an area bounded by two hands in a shape of a symbolic heart."
But unlike Swift, Google isn't intending that move to be used to signify affection for a celebrity boyfriend, whom you eventually will break up with and then excoriate in song lyrics. Instead, it wants wearers of its Google Glass device to be able to make the gesture at an object — say, a grande latte at Starbucks — in their head-mounted video camera's field of view and highlight it, capturing a snapshot of it. The Google Glass wearer could then use the device to post the picture on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter [sources: Gomez et al., Vincent].
Elon Musk is a forward-thinking futurist with a penchant for controversy. Learn 10 intriguing things about Elon Musk in our HowStuffWorks article.
Author's Note: 10 Weird Patents That Google Owns
I follow technology news pretty closely, and when I got this assignment I was aware of Google's push to develop exotic, game-changing gadgetry. But I have to say that once I started looking at the mountain of patents that the company has been filing, I was astonished by the sort of crazy stuff that the company's engineers and scientists have been dreaming up. It's almost as if they've been channeling Jules Verne, the 19th-century science fiction author who imagined submarines and space travel — ideas that probably seemed crazy at the time. It wouldn't surprise me if some of Google's more outlandish inventions someday are similarly commonplace.
- Albanesius, Chloe. "How Much Electricity Does Google Consume Each Year?" PCMag.com. Sept. 8, 2011. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2392654,00.asp
- Alberth, William P., Jr. "Coupling an Electronic Skin Tattoo To a Mobile Communication Device." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. May 3, 2012. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://1.usa.gov/1iHt6iE
- Bailey, Brandon. "Google's top-secret floating facility: A waterborne data center, or gadget showroom?" San Jose Mercury News. Oct. 28, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_24405791/googles-top-secret-floating-facility-water-borne-data
- Bhatia, Ashish. "Automated Generation of Suggestions for Personalized Reactions in a Social Network." U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. June 17, 2011. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=8,589,407.PN.&OS=PN/8,589,407&RS=PN/8,589,407
- Bishop, Todd. "'TrailView' 2.0? Google patents image-capturing walking stick." GeekWire. June 18, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.geekwire.com/2013/trailview-20-google-patents-imagecapturing-walking-stick/
- Clidaras, Jimmy, David W. Stiver and William Hamburgen. "Water-Based Data Center." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Aug. 28, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://appft1.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PG01&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=%2220080209234%22.PGNR.&OS=DN/20080209234&RS=DN/20080209234
- Donoghue, Andrew. "Google patents wave-powered server farm." ZDNet. Sept. 8, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.zdnet.com/google-patents-wave-powered-server-farm-4010009252/
- Frank, Blair Hanley. "Google's new social networking patent is truly comical." GeekWire. Dec. 31, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.geekwire.com/2013/google-patents-social-updates-comic-form/
- Gomez, Prada, Ricardo Luis and Aaron Wheeler. "Hand gestures to signify what is important." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. July 8, 2011. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-adv.htm&r=45&p=1&f=G&l=50&d=PTXT&S1=(20131015.PD.+AND+Google.ASNM.)&OS=ISD/20131015+AND+AN/Google&RS=(ISD/20131015+AND+AN/Google)
- Green, Travis, Narelle Cozens, Peter Schmitt, Michael DePasquale, Avery Pennarun, and Boris Mizhen. "Tracking and Managing Group Expenditures." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Oct. 3, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://appft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PG01&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=%2220130262294%22.PGNR.&OS=DN/20130262294&RS=DN/20130262294
- Heath, Taliver Brooks. "Advertising Based on Environmental Conditions." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Jan. 22, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=8,138,930.PN.&OS=PN/8,138,930&RS=PN/8,138,930
- Myslewski, Rik. "Google patent: THROAT TATTOO with lie-detecting mobe microphone built-in." The Register. Nov. 8, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/08/google_patent_tattoo_a_mobe_microphone_on_your_throat/
- Neven, Hartmut. "Gaze Tracking System." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. May 11, 2011. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-adv.htm&r=36&p=1&f=G&l=50&d=PTXT&S1=(20130813.PD.+AND+Google.ASNM.)&OS=ISD/20130813+AND+AN/Google&RS=(ISD/20130813+AND+AN/Google)
- Newton, Casey. "This Google patent application had us at 'laser keyboard." CNET. Jan. 18, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://m.cnet.com.au/this-google-patent-application-had-us-at-laser-keyboard-339343040.htm
- Ngak, Chenda. "Google's Eric Schmidt: 'Patent wars are death.'" CBS News. Oct. 11, 2012. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/googles-eric-schmidt-patent-wars-are-death/
- The Onion. "Caltech Physicists Successfully Split The Bill." The Onion. Sept. 5, 2006. (Jan, 5, 2014) http://www.theonion.com/articles/caltech-physicists-successfully-split-the-bill,2037/
- Ratner, Daniel Jason and Smith, Russell Leigh. "Walking Stick with IMU." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Sept. 21, 2011. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=8,467,674.PN.&OS=PN/8,467,674&RS=PN/8,467,674
- Regalado, Antonio. "Google's Growing Patent Stockpile." MIT Technology Review. Nov. 29, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.technologyreview.com/news/521946/googles-growing-patent-stockpile/
- Sampath, Satish. "Self-creation of comic strips in social networks and other communications." U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Feb. 16, 2010. (Jan. 8, 2014) http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=8,621,366.PN.&OS=PN/8,621,366&RS=PN/8,621,366
- Schreier, Jason. "Digital Interface Tattoo Melds Skin and Circuitry." Tech News Daily. Aug. 12, 2011. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.technewsdaily.com/5168-tattoo-digital-interface-circuitry.html
- Vincent, James. "Google patents the heart hand-gesture to let you 'like' things with Glass." Independent. Oct. 17, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2014) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/google-patents-the-heart-handgesture-to-let-you-like-things-with-glass-8887361.html