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Ready for bionic virtual reality meetings? Apple thinks so

Every week we round up the craziest patents the big tech companies have gotten. Some will amount to nothing. Others will define the future.

Person wearing a monitoring machine on head

In the future, Apple and Facebook think you might wear something like this to enter virtual reality.

Photo: Nicola Tree via Getty Images

Big tech had a pretty big week at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The resounding theme of all the big ideas? Virtual reality, and how to make it better in every way — more real, more interactive, and more available. Two different patents suggest using VR with body sensing electrodes like EEGs, while another wants to use smart home technology to merge the fictional world of books and movies with the actual environment in your living room.

The future is going to be so weird.

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Apple

The future of virtual meetings is … wearing an EEG?

Apple wants us all to dive into the metaverse. The company was awarded a patent for an extremely futuristic-sounding "bionic virtual meeting room." It outlines a system where two or more people could connect in a virtual meeting space, with avatars that match their real-life expressions. This sounds a lot like the reality that Facebook has been trying to push on the world for years, but Apple's patent goes further, suggesting users could be hooked up to EEG or GSR monitors to track electrical activity in the brain or fingers, using the data as inputs to the VR world. Pair this up with Facebook's VR glove from our roundup a few weeks ago, and we'd be well on our way to a "Ready Player One" future.

Two emoji patents!

Apple was recently awarded a patent for some proprietary emoji designs that launched in 2016, which included its designs for water polo players, the monocle-wearing emoji, and the woman in a hijab. But it was also granted a patent for the "memoji" it designed for the poop emoji, animated to match however you move your face. Because that's a thing someone definitely wants.

Going big on 5G, finally

Though Apple's been relatively mum on its 5G ambitions, some suspect its first 5G-capable devices will debut within the year. The company is reportedly working on its own radio architecture, too, which is perhaps not surprising given its purchase of Intel's mobile chip business and its lawsuits with Qualcomm. But the company is clearly thinking about what comes after LTE. It won patents this week for the "attachment of a wireless device to a next generation gateway," along a few recent others. In all, the company has over 200 patents that reference "fifth generation" cellular technology.

A curved-screen iPhone that's all glass

Apple has said in marketing copy that the iPhone is "all screen," even though there's a very clear notch at the top of its screen where a bunch of its sensors live, and a small bezel around the device. But the company seems to be working on a device that would be closer to an "all-screen" reality. A patent application was published this week describing a phone with a glass enclosure and display that curves around the front of the phone, with smaller spots for sensors.

When all else fails, at least get that patent

Apple famously couldn't figure out how to turn its vision for AirPower into a reality, but that hasn't stopped the company from patenting the idea.

Alphabet

Gmail and Google Calendar can sync to make saying no to plans easier

You know those auto-replies in Gmail? Well this patent suggests that Google wants Gmail and Google Calendar to be in better communication so that Gmail will know when you've got something scheduled and can suggest an auto-reply based on your calendar. It would also finally, finally, allow Google Calendar to make automatic appointments in your calendar based on the time of an event suggested in your email.

Amazon

Merging the fictional world with reality via the smart home

Talk about interactive entertainment. Amazon's new patent outlines a world where all our mobile devices can automatically detect and interact with each other, to the point where your e-reader (a Kindle, perhaps?) would know that you're reading about an arctic environment, so would tell your smart thermostat to turn the temperature down and your smart lights to fade to blue. The patent even suggests authors adding in this directorial information themselves while writing. There are other pretty off-the-wall suggestions in the patent, such as a smart home suggesting you get a pizza delivery timed exactly to when someone in a movie you're watching gets one delivered, or if you're shopping for a yellow dress, your lights all turn yellow, or if you're watching a movie set on Mars, the lights slowly turn orange. Your whole home becomes part of the entertainment experience.

Helping Alexa learn who's talking

If you live with other people but ask Alexa something like, "Alexa, when is my next meeting," you've likely heard her respond, "I don't know who's talking." A new patent from Amazon aims to rectify this by using machine learning to differentiate speaking voices. We all have verbal ticks and differences, and the system could learn to tell one person from another, or even use a smart device's built-in camera to see who's in front of them, much like some of Google's newest devices can. Google's home devices can already differentiate voices, but you have to set it up.

Facebook

Reading your VR vitals

It seems like Apple isn't the only company interested in adding sensors to your body in the name of more realistic VR. Facebook also received a patent this week for a head-mounted display system featuring electrodes monitoring "biopotential signals." This could be tracking muscle movements in your face, or an electrooculogram, tracking eye movements. These could be used to mimic facial expressions on a virtual avatar, or just to see where you're looking in the virtual world. Hopefully it'll produce something a lot better than the terrifying cartoons Facebook's last VR world used.

Making virtual objects feel real

One of the biggest drawbacks of virtual reality is that everything in it is, after all, virtual. If you pick up a boulder in a game, it would feel the same as picking up a feather — there's no way to replicate the weight and shape of real-world objects in VR. Facebook has a new approach to the problem: Its new patent involves gloves that can restrict and move parts of wearer's hands and fingers to make it feel like something they're holding in a game has a shape. It gives the example of putting your fingers around a coffee cup, where the glove would restrict your fingers from touching your palm, much like if you'd wrapped your fingers around a real cup. Hopefully your fingers don't get stuck like that forever.

Microsoft

Auto-dubbing videos

If you struggle to get over the "1-inch barrier" of subtitles in movies, Microsoft's patent application could be the answer. The company outlines a system that could automatically detect speech in a video, translate it, and dub over the person speaking in the video with the language of your choosing. The system would apparently even be able to match the tonality, speed and inflection of the person speaking.

Making mobile games a little easier to play

A common problem with mobile games is that you have to put your hands all over the screen to play them, obfuscating whatever you're trying to play. You can connect a wireless controller, but who wants to carry that around? Microsoft may have a solution: It was awarded a patent for wireless clip-on accessories that you can attach to and control touch-screen devices, without covering the screen up with your thumbs. Carry a couple little extra cubes in your pocket could be a far easier solution to mobile gaming than some of the ideas out there right now.

Scheduling meetings for when you're actually sharp

How many meetings have you sat in — often after a big lunch — where you're struggling to stay awake, let alone add anything productive? Microsoft is looking into whether it would be possible to build a meeting scheduler that more accurately blocked off time based on when employees were actually alert. The software idea would use some assumptions — like that many people are less attentive right after lunch or late in the evening, or that budget meetings might be more important than a weekly team checkup — to determine when to schedule a meeting. The patent even suggests making employees perform "various cognitive tasks or attention-based exercises" over multiple days to figure out when they're usually most with it. This definitely doesn't sound like software companies would want to use to figure out when someone's usually slacking off.

People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

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Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
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Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

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Subscriber defections slowed toward the end of the year, but there's no end to cord cutting in sight.

The pay TV industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift.

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The five biggest pay TV providers lost a combined 5.5 million subscribers in 2020, narrowly staying below the 5.8 million subscribers the companies collectively lost in 2019. Subscriber losses slowed a bit toward the end of the year, but pandemic-related cutbacks still hit the industry hard — and may have led to hundreds of thousands additional cancellations if not for industry-wide billing relief efforts.

The industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift, with pay TV subscribers switching from traditional operators like Comcast and AT&T to tech companies like Google and Hulu and their respective pay TV services. However, a closer look at pay TV trends suggests that these gains may be temporary, as so-called skinny bundles fall out of favor with consumers once operators are forced to increase their price tags to make up for ever-increasing network licensing costs.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

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There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Alphabet wants you to eat balloons instead of dieting

Guessing clothing size, AR car maps, wearable security and other patents from Big Tech.

Filling.

USPTO/Verily

It's the end of another long month week in lockdown, and if you're in the U.S., you're probably not going anywhere this weekend. So sit back and enjoy the latest zany patents from Big Tech, including headphones that allow you to have conversations in multiple languages, AI that can guess what size your clothes are, and AR that helps navigate while driving. And don't worry about getting a snack — Alphabet has an idea for that.

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

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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