Power

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.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

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.

A 'Soho house for techies': VCs place a bet on community

Contrary is the latest venture firm to experiment with building community spaces instead of offices.

Contrary NYC is meant to re-create being part of a members-only club where engineers and entrepreneurs can hang out together, have a space to work, and host events for people in tech.

Photo: Courtesy of Contrary

In the pre-pandemic times, Contrary’s network of venture scouts, founders, and top technologists reflected the magnetic pull Silicon Valley had on the tech industry. About 80% were based in the Bay Area, with a smattering living elsewhere. Today, when Contrary asked where people in its network were living, the split had changed with 40% in the Bay Area and another 40% living in or planning to move to New York.

It’s totally bifurcated now, said Contrary’s founder Eric Tarczynski.

Keep Reading Show less
Biz Carson

Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Binance CEO wrestles with the 'Chinese company' label

Changpeng "CZ" Zhao, who leads crypto’s largest marketplace, is pushing back on attempts to link Binance to Beijing.

Despite Binance having to abandon its country of origin shortly after its founding, critics have portrayed the exchange as a tool of the Chinese government.

Photo: Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In crypto, he is known simply as CZ, head of one of the industry’s most dominant players.

It took only five years for Binance CEO and co-founder Changpeng Zhao to build his company, which launched in 2017, into the world’s biggest crypto exchange, with 90 million customers and roughly $76 billion in daily trading volume, outpacing the U.S. crypto powerhouse Coinbase.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

How I decided to leave the US and pursue a tech career in Europe

Melissa Di Donato moved to Europe to broaden her technology experience with a different market perspective. She planned to stay two years. Seventeen years later, she remains in London as CEO of Suse.

“It was a hard go for me in the beginning. I was entering inside of a company that had been very traditional in a sense.”

Photo: Suse

Click banner image for more How I decided seriesA native New Yorker, Melissa Di Donato made a life-changing decision back in 2005 when she packed up for Europe to further her career in technology. Then with IBM, she made London her new home base.

Today, Di Donato is CEO of Germany’s Suse, now a 30-year-old, open-source enterprise software company that specializes in Linux operating systems, container management, storage, and edge computing. As the company’s first female leader, she has led Suse through the coronavirus pandemic, a 2021 IPO on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and the acquisitions of Kubernetes management startup Rancher Labs and container security company NeuVector.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Enterprise

UiPath had a rocky few years. Rob Enslin wants to turn it around.

Protocol caught up with Enslin, named earlier this year as UiPath’s co-CEO, to discuss why he left Google Cloud, the untapped potential of robotic-process automation, and how he plans to lead alongside founder Daniel Dines.

Rob Enslin, UiPath's co-CEO, chats with Protocol about the company's future.

Photo: UiPath

UiPath has had a shaky history.

The company, which helps companies automate business processes, went public in 2021 at a valuation of more than $30 billion, but now the company’s market capitalization is only around $7 billion. To add insult to injury, UiPath laid off 5% of its staff in June and then lowered its full-year guidance for fiscal year 2023 just months later, tanking its stock by 15%.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins