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“Can you hear me now?”
BUZZY

Google wants to have drones buzzing around offices, projecting our faces at meetings

Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

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Almost every videoconferencing system on the market seems to be difficult to set up, unreliable, or just a hassle to use. But a device described in a new Google patent might be able to do away with choppy video and awkward camera angles, and make it really feel like the faces of your coworkers are in the office with you. If you can put up with the buzzing.

Google’s new patent, awarded today, outlines a type of small drone that’s been fitted with a screen, that could project a virtual version of someone as it hovers around the office. According to the patent, the drone could either be powered by a cellphone sitting in the drone to connect to the internet, or paired remotely with another device.

US Patent and Trademark Office
The drone has a drop-down screen to protect images onto.

The drone appears to be a standard quadcopter-shaped drone, which would allow it to hover around as needed, and presumably be at the beck and call of its operator.

US Patent and Trademark Office
This version appears to be powered by a smartphone.

Another version of the drone appears to use a projection camera attached right to the body of the drone to display an image below it, rather like an inverted version of the holograms in Star Wars.

US Patent and Trademark Office
This version appears to just emit projections from above.

There’s no guarantee that Google, or its parent company, Alphabet, is working on something like this—this is just a patent after all. But the company’s ambitions in drone delivery are well documented, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think that its X research lab might be working on companion drones like this. (Alphabet wasn’t immediately available to comment on its plans for the patent.)

There are already drones on the market, such as DJI’s Phantom 4, that are pretty good at avoiding humans and hovering around like this, and there are even videoconferencing bots, like the one that was used to reserve a place in line for the latest iPhone last year. But the bigger question is why someone would want this: Drones are loud, they have generally very short battery lives (shorter than your average meeting), and their propellors can very easily chop pieces off of you if you’re not careful.

In the patent Google contends its idea would be easier to move around than a laptop: “Implementation of a mobile telepresence system on a relatively compact and operationally efficient airborne platform such as a quadcopter may provide significant improvements in, for example, speed, maneuverability, energy consumption and the like, facilitating access to spaces which may be otherwise difficult to access by a larger and less maneuverable platform.”

But in reality, it might be simpler just to stick with the shoddy Skype connection.

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