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Amazon wants to blanket the world in beacons that fall to the Earth like maple seeds

Plus better voice assistants, keyboards on your fingers, a blood-pressure monitor from Microsoft and other patents from Big Tech.

Amazon patent drawing

Amazon's patent is like a very futuristic version of the breadcrumbs in "Hansel and Gretel."

Image: Amazon/USPTO

It's that time of the week again! No, not when you realize you're more than halfway through the weekend already (but hey, what are weekends these days?) — it's time for some zany patents from Big Tech. There were a few themes that emerged this week: Both Google and Amazon are looking at ways to make voice assistants more conversational, and Facebook and Microsoft are exploring how AR changes the way we interact with the world in the future. And then there's tossing location-tracking beacons shaped like maple seeds from drones — there's really only one company doing that.

And remember: Companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Alphabet

Voice assistant arbitrage

If you've ever used a voice assistant speaker like an Echo or a Google Home, you know it can be a bit of a hassle to access additional services, especially if you're trying to compare one versus another, like calling a ride from Lyft or Uber. In Google's new patent, a voice assistant would be able to hold a conversation with its owner, and the AI could dynamically call upon more than one third-party service easily. In the diagram below, the user compares how long it would take to get a large vehicle to come pick him up without having to jump through verbal hoops like, "Hey Google, ask Uber how long it would take an XL ride to get here, and then ask Lyft the same thing."

Making drones quieter

In the long list of things preventing drone deliveries from becoming a regular occurrence in the U.S., this is probably pretty far down the list, but it's extremely annoying nonetheless. Drones are, pretty much without fail, extremely loud, and at usually the right pitch to make you think a swarm of angry bees is hovering just behind you. Imagine how that would feel if there were dozens or hundreds of drones zipping by at all times? Wing's new patent is full of ways to get around that, using hardware on drone propellers that can change the pitch of their buzzing as they approach a delivery drop-off, or even play a series of pitches in a row to make a little melody as the drone lands. It'd be like when your washing machine beeps to let you know it's done, but in flying robot form.

Amazon

Drone-deployed navigation beacons that fall like maple seeds

Do you remember playing with maple seeds as a kid, tossing them into the air and watching them float down to earth like tiny helicopters? Apparently someone in Amazon's engineering team does. This patent outlines small devices that could be dropped from a drone, spinning down to the ground like maple seeds. These devices wouldn't grow into magnificent trees filled with sweet syrup, but instead could act as location-tracking beacons for other drones that may have lost their way, possible because of malfunctioning sensors. It's like a very futuristic version of the breadcrumbs in "Hansel and Gretel."

Alexa, time for a Big Mac

Apparently just like Google, Amazon is working on making its voice assistants more conversational. In its new patent, it outlines situations where a simple question-and-answer function for Alexa wouldn't be enough to answer the user's vague query. In the case of one of the examples drawn out in the patent, a user tells Alexa they're hungry, and then the assistant asks them what they want. Perhaps a little problematically in 2020, its first suggestion is fast food (to which the user only tentatively replies "I guess") and then in a matter of seconds they're off to McDonalds. At least there's all-day breakfast — I guess.

Apple

Keyboards on your fingers?

Typing on tablets or smartphones with glass screens isn't the best feeling and doesn't provide the same tactile response that typing on a keyboard does. It's the reason a small cadre of devoted fans stuck around with BlackBerry long after they should have. But what if instead of bringing a keyboard to your phone, you brought one to your … fingers? This is apparently something Apple is considering, with tiny slip-on wearables for your fingertips that could re-create the sensation of typing even on a glass screen. To be honest, I'd rather just keep tapping away on glass rather than looking like I was playing with snacks.

Measuring yoga

Apple has been building out the types of exercise it supports on its Apple Watch pretty much since day one, and it added support for yoga a few updates ago, but this patent shows how (and what) it's tracking when you're getting into your downward dogs and your sun salutations:

Facebook

AR products

I'm mainly sharing this one because of the wonderfully creepy mustache on the guy in the patent art, but it also shines a light on how Facebook might want to use augmented reality in its advertising products. The patent outlines either acquiring or building digital models of its advertisers' products, and then using AR software to project those products onto the person looking at the ad. In the patent, the user who sees an ad for a new pair of glasses on Facebook could theoretically click on the ad, see the glasses rendered realistically on their face, and buy them, all without leaving the social network. Having worn glasses my whole life, I'm not sure I'd be so quick to make a big decision like that, but then again going off the mustache on the user in question, it seems like he might not always make the best choices anyway.

Microsoft

Blood pressure wearable

Given I've just spent the last few weeks diving deep into the future of health care, this one was pretty interesting to me. Most modern blood-pressure monitors, even the very fancy internet-connected ones, require some sort of cuff to be attached to the wearer's arm to accurately gauge blood pressure. They are far from comfortable to use and not exactly something you could walk around wearing. But Microsoft is apparently looking into a technology called radial tonometry that could replace the cuff with a device worn on the wrist and a patch over the heart. It might not be quite as simplified as what Apple has managed to do to the EKG, but it still seems like something that could be worn around by patients far more easily. And given that heart disease is the biggest killer in the U.S., that could be welcome news.

Augmented reality social networks

If you're like me, you might be great at remembering people's faces, but absolutely horrible at recalling their names. This new patent from Microsoft could be a game-changer for awkward future dinner parties: It outlines an AR system that could allow users to tag people and create social network groups with them, or could recall information about people when seeing them for the first time in person. If you've connected with someone on LinkedIn, for example, and they're at a work event in front of you but you can't just remember a thing about them, you could tap on your AR glasses and pull up their profile without having to look like an idiot and do the "Hey … you!" thing when they approach you and you can't remember your name.

Holographic displays

If you were designing a world-changing augmented-reality system, what would be the first thing you'd want to watch on it? Wizards fighting? Yeah, me, too. Microsoft's patent revolves around the world of head-mounted "near-eye displays" — which sounds a lot like the HoloLens — and the machinations required to mix digital content and the real world. But really the main reason I'm sharing this is that when we all have AR devices that we can use to improve our work and connect with the world in more interactive ways, what we're all really going to want to do is watch a wizard toss a fireball at a bad guy. Which sounds like a great future to me.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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