Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Part 2: Amazon – A Company Built Around Patents

By Joshua Proud, Art Brion, Dennis Haszko, Natalie Raffoul

Amazon is a global leader in e-commerce and cloud computing services.  Since its creation in 1994, the company has been steadily growing, with a current market capitalization of over one (1) trillion US dollars. 

Amazon has been built around a strong Intellectual property (IP) portfolio.  Famously known for filing the ‘1-Click’ patent in 1997, which detailed a method of storing buyer data and using it to validate future purchases, Amazon has since filed thousands of patent applications.

Today, in Part 2 of Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Series, we will highlight unique and interesting patents owned by Amazon.  Amazon has a large and diverse patent portfolio, encompassing a wide spectrum of technologies, such as machine learning, drones, and cloud computing.  These patents offer a glimpse into not just the company’s future, but also into what’s coming from big tech.

An Airship to Fulfill Amazon Orders

An Amazon warehouse floats in the sky over a major city.  You order an item, and, within minutes, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with your item is deployed from the floating warehouse to arrive at your doorstep.  Although this scenario may sound like science fiction, US Patent 10,032,125 describes such an invention.  In the document, described are systems and methods for utilizing an aerial fulfillment center (AFC) and UAVs to deliver items that may be purchased by a user on an e-commerce website.

In the patent, Amazon describes a large AFC positioned over a metropolitan area, equipped with an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user.  After an order is placed by a user for an item in the AFC’s inventory, a UAV is equipped with the item.  The UAV glides down from the high altitude of the AFC using little or no power, and then utilizes propellers to navigate to a specified delivery location.  Upon arrival, the UAV releases the ordered item for the user to collect, and then navigates to a nearby ground-based materials handling facility.

While a floating warehouse perhaps sounds like a page from an Isaac Asimov story, this patent provides a glimpse into the future of how the e-commerce behemoth may someday deliver orders.

‘Blended’ Reality Mirrors

Have you ever wondered what you may look like wearing an article of clothing you are purchasing online?  While this is already being done with eyewear online, Amazon seeks to solve this problem with clothing in general with US Patent 9,858,719.   In the patent, described is a system and method for generating a blended reality by combining images reflected by a mirror with images on a screen behind the mirror. 

The patent describes a method of configuring blended reality views to provide visual representations of items (such as clothing) on a user in various settings.  If implemented, the technology would allow customers to ‘try on’ clothing by standing in front of a mirror that is equipped with the blended reality technology. 

The future of online shopping for clothing may be quite different and interactive!

Does Amazon want to Listen to your Conversations?

Alexa is a cloud-based virtual assistant used in Amazon smart speakers and that responds to voice commands.  The wake word ‘Alexa’ commands the device to begin recording audio input, with the audio input being sent to a distributed computing environment to be analyzed and processed into executable commands.  While many of us are familiar with this, Amazon only captures and stores voice recordings spoken directly after the wake word.

However, would you feel comfortable if Alexa was listening to all of your conversations?  US Patent  10,192,546 issued to Amazon describes a system and method to capture and analyze speech that precedes the wake word.  Amazon describes how current speech processing systems are not configured to execute voice commands structured by users that preceded the wake word.  Accordingly, to overcome this issue, Amazon has proposed recording the audio data captured prior to the wake word being spoken.  This data is then analyzed to determine whether a command has preceded the wake word.

Amazon acknowledges privacy concerns associated with constantly recording audio on a local device and sending that audio to a remote device for processing.  As a solution, the cloud computing titan describes a system and method that ‘buffers’ all input speech to perform wake word detection.  Only once a wake word is detected will the system look retrospectively, and only then will the system send audio to a remote server for speech recognition processing.  Amazon states that all other captured audio is deleted forever.

Although the technology in this patent does not appear to yet be in use, the potential privacy concerns of having a device that continuously records audio all the time raises many issues for the future.

The few patents discussed above represent only a tiny fraction of the over nine thousand (9,000) patents that are in Amazon’s IP portfolio.  While patents can sometimes provide us with an idea of where a company is headed, there is no saying if any of these patents will ever be implemented.  However, at the very least, the technology disclosed in these patents is a testimony to Amazon’s innovative DNA.

Stay tuned for Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Part 3: GUIs.

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