As Apple rolls out what feels like yet another incremental upgrade to its flagship iPhones, and Samsung pushes its foldable – and pricey – Galaxy range, it may seem like these once-groundbreaking tech giants are now content resting on their laurels instead of innovating, trying to squeeze as much as possible out of our smartphone and social media-dependent society.
But some digging by tech site SimpleGhar shows that within the ranks of Apple and Google, there still are engineers and designers tinkering with technology that sometimes borders on sci-fi.
Sifting through patents on Google’s patent search tool, five potentially groundbreaking technologies that never saw the light of the day were unearthed, and then rendered into 3D models.
While we might never be able to get our hands on them, they nonetheless show that innovation is alive and kicking in the tech industry – even as smartphone makers compete to see who has the best camera and social media companies try their hardest to keep us glued to our screens.
The big idea
To protect iPhones’ notoriously fragile screens, Apple engineers devised retractable screen protectors that extend above the screen to create a gap during a “drop event”, “functioning as a shock absorber and preventing the screen from connecting with a surface that the electronic device contacts”, according to the patent.
However, knowing Apple’s dedication to simplicity and minimalism in its product design, it is not surprising to see that iPhones never adopted this technology, with its many exposed moving parts and clunky design.
Plus, Apple Care doesn’t sell itself, does it?
Facebook’s Levitating Camera
The big idea
In a move that feels straight out of Blade Runner, Facebook (now Meta) envisioned a webcam that can levitate and follow its user’s face during video calls, thanks to electromagnets.
The camera module improves on fixed desktop or notebook cameras by giving greater freedom of movement to the caller, while also eliminating the shakiness that can arise from taking video calls on smartphones or tablets.
While the idea is good in principle, it is questionable whether today’s users would be comfortable with yet another privacy-invading gadget that can track your movements.
Meta’s recent pivot to the metaverse also saw the company go all out on virtual reality, with the company preferring to stake a claim in your virtual world rather than the physical one., which makes sense for what is mostly a software, not hardware, company.
Google’s virtual hand keyboard
The big idea
Why bother typing on the keyboard on your phone’s screen, when you can just make your hand the keyboard?
Likely envisioned as an extension of the now-failed Google Glass project, the virtual hand keyboard would have allowed users to type numbers and letters directly on their hand, acting as a “virtual input device”.
Google’s engineers seem quite fixated on augmented reality, but it is not yet clear that consumers are ready to abandon their beloved devices in favour of floating screens.
The projection of a small keyboard also seems quite limiting nowadays, considering that we can do anything from applying for a mortgage to playing complex video games on our phones.
Samsung’s smart contact lens
The big idea
Smart contact lenses that can project virtual screens, take pictures and video, and analyse visual information have been the staple of secret agents, futuristic spies, and just about anyone looking to get something done discreetly.
Samsung’s smart contact lens includes several micro-sized units that display, record and relay information to the wearer and their smartphone (potentially), effectively putting a tiny computer in your eye.
While many have heralded the arrival of the metaverse and virtual reality as the next iteration of the internet, the reality is that the technology we need to access them is just not there yet. Smartphone’s sleek experience still trumps fuzzy graphics and clunky headsets. But should Samsung be able to develop a safe, functioning contact lens that can help us access augmented reality, it could actually prove to be a game changer.
Of course, the lenses would have to be water/tear proof, flexible so as not to break in the eye, and somehow not overheat from the significant computing power necessary to project images into our eyes.
While this still sounds far from reality, innovations in technology such as Apple’s waterproof Apple Watch Ultra and LG’s rollable TV point to the existence of technology that might just make this all a reality.
Ford’s motorised unicycle
The big idea
Traffic got you down? No worries, just switch to your sleek unicycle by swapping it onto one of your rear tires.
Ford engineers must have had a hoot playing superhero and designing a Batmobile-worthy vehicle, which houses the unicycle frame in the boot and comes with a customised suspension system.
Ford took the idea of “last mile” transport to the extreme, deciding to build two vehicles in one that would allow drivers to, say, park their car far from congested city centres and negotiate traffic in a nimble, small motorbike.
While a smart idea in theory, in practice there are many things prospective buyers would need to consider.
For starters, how heavy would the unicycle frame be? Would you have to replace the tire more often due to the increased wear and tear? And would you need to buy two insurance policies?
It’s undeniable, though, that both Batman and Iron Man would have been proud of the invention.