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Ultrasonic wristband
A diagram shows how an ultrasonic wristband can track a warehouse worker’s position in relation to a given inventory bin. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Update for 9:30 a.m. PT Feb. 5: Amazon released the following statement about its patents for a wristband tracking system, saying that such a device is aimed at making it easier for warehouse workers to do their jobs.

“The speculation about this patent is misguided. Every day at companies around the world, employees use handheld scanners to check inventory and fulfill orders. This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.”

Amazon, like many companies, routinely files high-tech patents exploring the frontiers of technology. As we’ve pointed out previously, many of those patents undergo significant refinement before a product is brought to market, and many more never come to fruition. For example, there are no smartphone airbag systems or drone-dispensing airship warehouses on the horizon. So breathe easy: Amazon won’t be using wristbands to track employees’ bathroom breaks anytime soon..

Previously: Amazon has been issued a pair of patents for a wristband system that monitors whether warehouse workers are putting their hands in the right places.

The patents, published today, cover bracelets that could emit ultrasonic sound pulses or radio transmissions to let a receiver system get a fix on where the workers’ hands are, in relation to an array of inventory bins.

Amazon doesn’t typically comment on its patents, but if the technology makes economic sense, it could conceivably be picked up for use in the Seattle-based online retailer’s hundreds of fulfillment centers.

This isn’t the first time the concept has come to light: When the applications for the patents were published last fall, there was a spate of stories about “buzzing wristbands that bosses can use to track workers and order them around.”

It’s true that the idea of wearing a monitoring bracelet evokes a modicum of creepiness, akin to the idea of wearing an ankle bracelet during house arrest. But you won’t find a hint of that in the patent documents. The concept is laid out instead as a labor-saving measure:

“Existing approaches for keeping track of where inventory items are stored … may require the inventory system worker to perform time consuming acts beyond placing the inventory item into an inventory bin and retrieving the inventory item from the inventory bid, such as pushing a button associated with the inventory bin or scanning a barcode associated with the inventory bin. … Accordingly, improved approaches for keeping track of where an inventory item is stored are of interest.”

The patents, filed in 2016, suggest that the wristbands provide a no-muss, no-fuss method for verifying that the correct items are being processed. The inventors say the system circumvents the need for “computationally intensive and expensive” monitoring by means of computer vision, a la Amazon Go.

And the inventors know their way around computer vision: The patent for the ultrasonic wristband was filed by Jonathan Cohn, senior technical program manager for Amazon Go. The radio-frequency wristband system was proposed by Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics.

Radio-based wristband system
This diagram illustrates how sensors could track the position of a wristband that sends out radio signals. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

The system’s sensors triangulate on the wristband’s signals to determine where a worker’s hand is positioned, and software matches that position with the inventory item that’s supposed to be processed.

In addition to picking up signals, the system could send signals back, setting the band abuzz with a burst of “haptic feedback” to let workers know their hands are heading for the right bin.

It’s not clear if or when Amazon might actually turn the wristband concept into a reality. But since Amazon employs tens of thousands of workers at its fulfillment centers, it doesn’t take much to guess where the system could be put into effect. So if boxes of wristbands start turning up at a warehouse near you, be sure to let us know.

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