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A boredom detector and 6 other wild Facebook patents

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A look into the 1,000 patent applications Facebook files every year

Over the last few years, Facebook has developed a well-deserved reputation as a copycat. Last August, Instagram introduced its take on Snapchat Stories, and the feature was then introduced throughout Facebook’s family of products. The company has previously “adopted” features from competitors — the like from Tumblr, the check-in from Foursquare, the marketplace from Craigslist, and live-streaming video from Meerkat and Twitter. What other services might the company copy within its own family of apps?

We’ve spent the past six months collecting patent applications that suggest bold new paths for the company. Some of these applications allude to radically new features — but many of them suggest Facebook is still up to its copycat tactics.

Facebook won’t say which of these features, if any, will result in a new product. A company spokesperson says Facebook files more than 1,000 patent applications every year, and most of the ones listed below are still in the application stage. “We often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patents should not be taken as an indication of future plans,” a spokeswoman said.

But the patent applications do hint at where Facebook might be heading.

The Facebook dating app: Patent No. 9,609,072

In March, Facebook was granted a patent for a system that would allow it to build a dating service into the site. The patent describes a way for Facebook to identify friends of friends who might be single, based on “other commonalities or shared experiences.” When you see someone you like, Facebook would let you ask for an introduction.

Facebook might also let you seek introductions to people with whom you do not have a friend-of-a-friend connection. The patent suggests a system for showing you potential matches based on shared experiences you select — the examples in the patent are “twins,” “cancer,” and “phone type” — and allowing you to filter your search by age, location, and other constraints.

Some elements of the patent, which was filed in 2014, sound as if they are simply describing Facebook’s current integration with Tinder. It makes several references to integrations with a “third-party service” and a “dating service.” It also suggests new avenues for Facebook, including one in which it offers users unspecified “rewards” for participating in the dating service. The patent also describes a way in which Facebook could show you possible matches both from Facebook and the dating service — potentially giving you access to Facebook’s entire user base, even if they don’t have a Tinder profile.

Anonymous messaging: Patent No. 20170111327

Facebook’s focus on making you use your real identity on the service is both controversial and lucrative. It’s also created an opening for countless apps focused on anonymous posting and messaging — companies like Secret, Yik Yak, and Whisper have raised tens of millions of dollars on the promise of building a secret social profile.

Those companies ultimately failed, but that hasn’t stopped Facebook from exploring the feature. The company filed an application for a patent earlier this year for a system that lets users establish anonymous communication between one another, and maintain that channel so they can continue their conversation without ever learning the identity of the person they’re talking with.

The anonymous communication described in the application is location-based: it allows you to contact people anonymously only if they are within a certain distance of you. In this, it closely resembles Highlight, an app that showed you limited information about people in your area and invited you to message them. (Highlight was not anonymous, though it optionally obscured many identifying details about the user.)

If you got along with the person you were anonymously messaging with, Facebook would allow you to send a traditional friend request, according to the patent. Or you could block them.

Highlight flopped, but there was a germ of an idea in there. Imagine walking into a crowded conference for your job and being able to see what you had in common with the people in the room — it made a certain amount of sense. And we might one day see something like it in Facebook.

The Facebook delivery app: Patent No. 20170116562

Patent No. 20170116562

Peer-to-peer delivery is an idea that has intrigued companies from Postmates to Uber. Facebook has considered it as well. In this patent application, the company describes a way of turning shoppers into delivery agents.

Imagine you’ve stepped into a bakery to make a purchase. Across town, a neighbor places an order at the bakery. Facebook pings you asking if you’d like to make a delivery. You say yes, the baker hands you the order, and you deliver it to the remote customer. The patent suggests that you and the other customer would communicate via Facebook Messenger, possibly with your names obscured to protect your privacy. Upon delivery, the patent says you would receive a “reward,” presumably in the form of money.

Facebook describes all sorts of benefits that we might derive from such a system, including environmental ones (reducing car trips) and retail ones (stores can package fewer items for display, saving on costs for materials). “The combination of a merchant e-commerce system with a social networking system’s information and infrastructure may allow users to make repeated purchases easily, and may allow a social networking system or merchant to utilize user purchase information to reach out to users with marketing messages based on their behavior,” the company writes. Hope you like push notifications!

Emails in the News Feed: Patent No. 20170134329

In November 2010, Facebook gave everyone an email address — their username, at facebook.com. But few people used it, and the company retired its email service in 2014.

A patent application filed in May suggests email could be coming back to Facebook — and you’ll find it in the News Feed. The patent appears geared toward Facebook at Work, the enterprise version of the social network that the company released last year. It describes a system in which the News Feed includes both normal stories from colleagues and external emails.

Diagrams show a carousel of emails that might appear inside the News Feed the same way the horizontal-scrolling “people you may know” module appears today. The applicationsuggests you would be able to respond to emails directly within the feed.

In addition to putting email in a new context, Facebook suggests it can improve on the current system by ranking emails by their importance. Other services do this to various degrees — Gmail’s category tabs, for example, or Outlook’s priority inbox. But Facebook suggests it might have more powerful signals to use to filter the inbox. Factors could include “past interactions of the user with emails, interactions of connections of users with emails, interactions of colleagues (based on org chart) with emails, affinity between sender and the user, and so on.”

Predicting your emotions: Patent No. 20170147202

We’re increasingly comfortable allowing machines to alter our text based on input. Install Gboard on your phone, for example, and it will suggest relevant emoji for you automatically based on what you’re typing. The iOS keyboard will suggest words based on your typing habits.

This patent application describes a system in which Facebook analyzes your emotional state based on a number of factors, including your typing speed, the words you use, and even the amount of pressure you’re placing on the keyboard. (It also takes note of the accelerometer, which is useful if your emotions have led you to throw your phone.)

Once it has determined your emotional state, Facebook then suggests a new font and other formatting changes for your message, according to the patent. In one example from the patent application, someone has sent the text message: “Why does Kevin always have to be such a contrarian?” Facebook modifies the kerning — the spacing between letters — of the word “contrarian,” which makes it look as if the writer is emphasizing it. In another word, a simple text of “CONGRATULATIONS!” is blown up into a larger font than the message preceding it.

Boredom detector: Patent No. 20170126825

One of the most troublesome things about Facebook users, from Facebook’s perspective, is that they sometimes tire of the News Feed and click away to other apps or websites — where they are generally much harder for Facebook to profit from. Enter the boredom detector, a patent application filed in May. It describes a system in which Facebook determines that you are dissatisfied with what it is showing you, and quickly reshuffles the content to tempt you to stay.

First, Facebook measures the length of time between when you started scrolling through the feed and the last time you stopped. The longer you’ve gone without finding something that makes your thumb stop, the likelier it is that you’re bored. Then Facebook takes it a step further. The patent describes a system that tracks your eye position using your device’s camera, and watches to see when you lose focus on the glass for a certain period of time.

For all the detection technology involved, Facebook’s solution to boredom is rather humdrum: it takes a fresh look at all the items it could show you and re-ranks them. (It also makes room for any new items that have been posted since you began scrolling.) How users will feel about the company routinely tracking their eye movements, however, is an open question.

The hand-tracking virtual keyboard: Patent No. 20170147082

In 2016 Facebook revealed Building 8, a secretive new lab designed to build new hardware. At F8, we heard about two of Building 8’s projects: a brain-to-computer interface, and an ambitious program to enable us to “hear” based on vibrations we feel on our skin.

A patent application filed in May suggests a fascinating new hardware project for Facebook: a device that tracks your hand movements to enable input, such as on a keyboard. Drawings submitted for the patent show a person sitting on a chair, typing in the air — with their movements resulting in keyboard input on a wall-mounted television several feet away. Another drawing shows the hand moving over a puck-like device placed on a table, which interprets the movements and broadcasts them to the television.

According to the application, the device projects light onto the user’s hand, and interprets its movements based on changes to the light. User interfaces that track the movements of our hands have been a sci-fi staple going back to Minority Report — and it seems like Facebook is now exploring that terrain as well.

Facebook takes on the Chromecast: Patent No. 20170111689

Patent No. 20170111689

Facebook’s intention to replace TV — and siphon away TV advertising dollars — is often stated by its executives. But what if existing TV could be made to feel more like Facebook? That’s the idea raised by this patent application, which proposes a system in which Facebook generates a hybrid video stream for TV consisting of the program you’re watching alongside content from Facebook. That could include the News Feed, individual posts, another video stream, chat messages, or ads, according to the patent. The central feature is what the patent calls a “social TV dongle” — a device that plugs into the TV and then enables new interactions with Facebook’s software on your phone. It looks like Facebook’s take on the Chromecast.

There’s a graveyard full of startups that have tried to make TV more “social,” usually by attempting to build standalone networks for TV fans where they could discuss what they were watching. (Does anyone remember GetGlue?) The apps crashed and burned when it turned out that most people don’t want to use a standalone TV social network while they watch — many of them simply browse Facebook.

That’s one reason a Facebook take on social TV feels more interesting than most, should it ever see the light of day. Facebook released a TV app in March. It seems plausible that the app might adopt features similar to the ones described in this patent over time.