Apple preps iPhone face recognition
The US Patent and Trademark Office published 33 new Apple patent applications on Thursday, bringing the total filed in July to 55 - and we're not even a third of the way through the month.
Today's cluster of creativity ranged from flexible cabling  to scrolling lyrics , but the bulk of the filings described new powers for the ubiquitous iPhone and its little brother, the iPod touch - especially when the 'Pod is equipped with a camera, which it seems destined to be .
Two of the filings are directly camera-related. One focuses on object identification  and the other on face recognition . The former is targeted specifically for handhelds, while the latter's reach extends both into your pocket and out to the entire universe of consumer electronics.
The object-identification filing  describes a system in which a handheld's camera captures an image of an object either in visual light or infrared, then compares that image with information stored over a network. The network then asks the you what information about that object you'd like to download, then provides it.
The filing also describes the system using an RFID reader rather than a camera, but the detect-compare-download sequence remains the same.
Apple uses a museum visit to illustrate the utility of this technology: You could simply point your iPhone at a work of art and quickly be presented with info about its artist, genre, provenance, and the availability of T-shirts featuring that work in the museum store - which another of Thursday's filings, on online shopping , could help you buy.
Tapping into a handheld's GPS and digital compass could also enable the system to provide location-based resources - the filing suggests a "RESTAURANT mode" to help you find east in Vegas - and to support the captioned landscapes provided by augmented reality  that are getting so much press lately.
Claude Monet at his most minimalist, captured and ID-ed by your iPhone
Finally, the filing includes a way for you to capture a log of all the identified objects, complete with downloaded multimedia content for creating a record of your peregrinations. Look for such a media-rich slideshow to appear in some student's "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" school assignment.
The face-recognition filing  describes two different system: one that merely checks for a face - any face - and a second that matches what it sees with a database of whom it knows.
The system that doesn't care who you are is merely looking to see if anyone's using it - and if someone is, it won't time out, as would an iPhone, or fire up a screensaver, as would a PC. The system that knows you by your dashing good looks would also be aware of your privileges level, and allow access to its services based on that level.
Apple, as usual in its patent applications, isn't shy about the scope of this technology. It list 37 different devices that could incorporate it, from personal communications devices to vehicle operating systems to automatic teller machines. Then just in case it forgot anything, adds "any like computing device capable of interfacing with a person."
That should just about cover it.
Retrieve sent messages and sound like Oprah
Another iPhone enhancement would be the ability to play back voicemail messages  that you've recorded onto others' voicemail services. According to the filing, many of us simply forget what we said when we've left a message, and gaining the ability to replay those message would be a boon.
We agree. As the filing notes, "Individuals contacted by someone responding to one of their messages may be faced with the embarrassing situation in which the individual is not prepared to discuss the subject brought to the attention of that same individual." You've been there, right?
And so this filing provides a way for your iPhone to record and keep a copy of messages you leave for others. Alternatively, that copy could be recorded and played back to you by your wireless service provider, but the effect would be the same: You could be reminded about what you said in a message after you've left it.
But one other of Thursday's filings puts a little twist into those messages. It describes a technology that would allow you to modify an audio signal  in such a way as to make your voice sound like someone else's.
Specifically, the filing says "The system may change the original frequency content of an audio data file to a second frequency content so that a recorded audio track will sound as if a different person had recorded it when it is played back."
I'll leave this message as Oprah - what could go wrong?
This sounds a wee bit sketchy to us. Apple's filing, of course, uses a benign example: "A mother ... might wish to change the narrator's voice in a pre-recorded, commercially available audiobook to her own voice, so that her child can listen to the audiobook as narrated in the mother's voice in her absence." It seems, however, that being able to change Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's voice to that of, say, Benjamin Netanyahu is just asking for trouble.
Finally, Apple wants you to be able to buy your next iPhone or iPod preloaded with content  you pick in advance.
"Unfortunately," the filing reads, "consumers cannot currently purchase media players ... that already include media items of interest to the user. Instead, a consumer may generally have to obtain media items of interest and then subsequently transfer them to a media device. This process can be time-consuming and inefficient."
Odds are that Apple is not all that worried about whether you and I have to inefficiently waste our precious time loading up our new iPhones and iPods with digital media. It's more likely that popping another $10 for The Best of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs  (iTunes link) when you're already forking out $399 for a 32GB iPod touch might be a hard-to-resist temptation - and one that will juice Apple's cash flow.
Ah, those creative Cupertinians. Always thinking. ®