By John Hewitt on January 7, 2014
Imagine trying to patent the smartphone, or for that matter, the tattoo. Any company that could swing that, could probably also patent the fork and knife. Incredibly, a new application from Google-owned Motorola Mobility seeks a patent not for any particular utensil, but rather, for setting the table. In other words, if you have an electronic smart tattoo, and want it to speak to your mobile communications device, you may soon be able to do it in spades, but you will have to do it Google style.
But hold on for a minute, as there is a bit more to the whole concept than might first appear. The tattoo they have in mind is actually one that will be emblazoned over your vocal cords to intercept subtle voice commands — perhaps even subvocal commands, or even the fully internal whisperings that fail to pluck the vocal cords when not given full cerebral approval. One might even conclude that they are not just patenting device communications from a patch of smartskin, but communications from your soul.
Or maybe not. It has been known for decades that when you speak to yourself in your inner voice, your brain still sends neural spike volleys to your vocal apparatus, in a similar fashion to when you actually speak aloud. The main difference between the two, is that the nervous action driving covert speech as it is called, is subthreshold, and does not generate the full muscle contraction. The same might also be said for imagining throwing a baseball — it is probably not possible to even do so without simultaneously calling up and at least partially launching unamplified motor programs. Stated another way, your thoughts are your motor intentions, only they are not always recognizable as such if they are sufficiently abstracted.
The actual patent speaks of picking up an “auditory signal” from the tattoo, and converting it into a digital signal. The signals from the brain, carried by spikes on the hundreds of laryngeal nerve fibers (and other nerves modulating the vocal tract), are already digital. They bear no real resemblance to an auditory signal at this point. After transformation in the numerous muscles that control the speech organs, there is still no single signal that could be sent to a transducer to generate sound recognizable as speech. Looking at an image of a smart tattoo pioneered by John Roger’s Illinois-based research lab, there seems to be all kinds of sensor goodies which can be built in to pick up various biologics. I don’t know if the strain gauges could pick up an actual speech signal in the same way that a conventional microphone could, but they would certainly generate useful information. The built-in EMG and ECG electrodes would not pick up individual spikes so to speak, but could certainly generate electrical records of muscle activity, and perhaps eventually compound nerve potentials. Rogers helped to form a company, MC10, that hoped to commercialize this technology, and although he indicated that he was not involved in these recent ventures, they have joint development efforts with Motorola Mobility.
There is already a device known as a throat microphone that has been used to record an auditory signal in noisy conditions like, for example, the cockpit of a jet fighter. Developed along with the first pressure suit back in 1934, it used a direct contact microphone to pick up sound waves traveling through solid objects such as the throat wall. Later so-called throat microphones, such as the Xbox 360 accessory, only use an open-air microphone. They do not really exclude background noise, nor have the ability to pick up unvoiced signals. What got some folks attention recently, namely those over at Patently Apple, was a few peculiar statements in the patent regarding the recording of galvanic skin responses. These guys first heard about the e-skin tattoo from Regina Dugan, the former DARPA head who is now in charge of advanced research at Motorola. Their article notes that the e-tattoo would provide a nice way to do authentication, but the seemingly out of place inclusion of the lie detection talk certainly raises some questions.
Covert voice activation of your device in a crowd would definitely be a nice feature. Instead of actually speaking to Siri or Google Now, you could merely think your voice command. Detecting stress and other emotion could have some applicability too, although who else really needs to know if you have a lump in your throat? Perhaps I have not read that many patents recently, but there certainly did seem to be an excess of wording, and scope. Every wireless communications protocol I am familiar with was included in some form, somewhere. Not only were there definitions for words like “a” and “an,” but also actual percentages associated with a list of words like “about,” “approximately”, “essentially”, and “substantially”. Clearly this is one among several recent patents that we all may want to keep an eye on.