Amazon's latest patents are focused on video, augmented reality, and the connected home

Key Points
  • Amazon's recent patent issues provide clues about the inventions and technologies the company might be looking at next
  • In December, Amazon was issued patents that include an augmented reality mirror, technology that would "mute" the Echo's video mode by pixelating the image and tech that would detect hacked self driving cars
  • Amazon has had notable patent successes over the years like one-click shopping and cloud computing technologies
Breaking down Amazon's patent strategy

Amazon has about 500 patents pending. Of course, not all of them will form the basis of products, but Amazon has had some very notable patents -- like one-click shopping and many of the technologies that make up the foundation of cloud computing, now its most profitable business.

So we looked at some recent patent issues to get into the head of Bezos -- and see if we could find some clues about the inventions and technologies Amazon might be looking at next.

With the help of MCAM, a analytics firm that measures companies intellectual property we looked at a few patents issued over the last month. Some of them could be straight out of Black Mirror, the Netflix series that explores a high-tech near future. And when you look at activity overall, some themes emerge. MCAM analysis reveals that Amazon is ramping up patent activity in video, connected home and AR technologies.

Augmented reality mirror

In December, Amazon was issued patents that include an augmented reality mirror and a "smart" sensor-studded package delivery air vehicle, as well as patents that include technology that would "mute" the Echo's video mode by pixelization for user privacy and detect hacked self driving cars.

As Amazon moves deeper into the fashion world, an augmented reality mirror would bring that world into customers' homes. It allows users to try on virtual clothes in a virtual setting, using a system of cameras, mirrors, projectors and lights to project different backgrounds and clothes onto the user.

Amazon's Echo Look camera is already halfway there -- letting users take a picture with the help of Amazon's Alexa AI voice assistant, and use that to virtually try on different outfits. The company may be looking for ways to blend the Echo Look technology with its other recent fashion forays, like its own clothing, handbag and shoe labels and its Stitch Fix-like at-home clothing trial service.

Also in December, Amazon filed a patent for technology that would detect hacked self-driving cars. While Amazon has never said they are getting into autonomous driving, the patent could be hugely important for bigger players in this space like Tesla, Alphabet and Uber.

Another notable patent issued in the last month could advance video technology in Amazon's Echo devices. The technology allows users to use video conferencing on their Echo and mute it by blurring or pixelating the video for user privacy. This one suggests that Amazon is thinking of privacy protections as it ramps up video communication.

A strong history of patents

While many of Amazon's thousands of patents may never come to fruition, experts say that Amazon has very notable successes in terms of developing and protecting core patented technology.

For example, long before cloud computing was a mainstream enterprise practice -- and long before Google or Microsoft entered the space -- Amazon was getting patents issued relating to advanced cloud management and deployment.

"That strategy very much empowered their business strategy to allow them to have a huge lead in cloud," says David Pratt, Managing Director at MCAM. "In turn," he says, "it made it more complex and costly for competitors to stand up their cloud capability." Amazon's cloud unit, AWS, is now the company's most profitable business.

Amazon's patent for one-click shopping, which lets customers buy things without entering and re-entering their billing, payment or shipping information, was issued in 1999. That patent gave it an edge over other retailers and reaped dividends through licensing fees from the likes of Apple and others. It expired last year, but for nearly 20 years, Amazon was the only game in town for a technology many consumers now take for granted.

Gaston Kroub, a founding partner at IP litigation boutique Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov, says that Amazon "struck gold" with one-click by getting a seminal ecommerce patent. With cloud computing, he says Amazon got in early "in what proved to be a very important business unit and that gave them a competitive advantage.

To date Amazon has over 6,100 patents issued by the U.S., Europe and World Intellectual Property Organization. But in the business of patents, experts say it's not about numbers, but having the best quality patents that aim to enable and extend a company's business model. And in that regard, Pratt says, Amazon has one of the richest patent portfolios among the Fortune 500.

Kroub says that while Bezos has been proactive and smart about getting patents, part of his success comes from the era in which the company grew up.

"It helped that Amazon came of age at a time when there was a real land rush to patent technologies around software and business practices," Kroub says. "During the dotcom boom, there was a huge rush in the patent office to grab as many as possible. Amazon was part of that wave and developed good habits on the patent front."