It sounds like like an April Fool’s Day joke, but it isn’t. Microsoft, that imperialist of the information-technology world, has actually succeeded in patenting the human body as a computer network. US Patent 6,754,472, issued to the company on June 22nd, is for a “method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body”.

At the moment, übergeeks who want to create a so-called personal area network (PAN) have to link their personal electronic devices—mobile phones, pagers, personal data assistants (PDAs) and so on—using infra-red or radio signals. What Microsoft is proposing is to use the skin’s own conductive properties to transmit the data needed to create such a network. And the firm does not stop at people. A “wide variety of living animals”, it says, could be used to create computer buses, as they are known technically, in this manner.

Many people today carry a range of portable electronic devices, each with its own keypad, speaker, display, processing unit and power supply. The idea behind the patent is to get rid of some of these items. If such gizmos were networked, it would be possible to have, say, just one keypad for a mobile phone, an MP3 music player and a PDA. The keypad might even be a person’s forearm. As the patent puts it, “The physical resistance offered by the human body can be used in implementing a keypad or other input device as well as estimating distances between devices and device locations. In accordance with the present invention, by varying the distance on the skin between the contacts corresponding to different keys, different signal values can be generated representing different inputs.” In other words you can, in theory, type on your skin.

Microsoft suggests using the body to generate power for the network, too. A “kinetic power converter” in the wearer’s shoe or wristwatch would produce electricity in the same way that an old-fashioned self-winding watch extracted energy from its owner’s normal movements.

More here.