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Apple wants to connect your shirts and rugs to the internet

Plus blockchain-based supply chains, robot shelves, Amazon puzzles and other patents from Big Tech.

Apple wants to connect your shirts and rugs to the internet

Who needs a watch when you have a sleeve?

Image: Apple/USPTO

Happy Sunday! Grab some coffee, take a load off and enjoy the day with some patents from Big Tech.

This week saw a pretty wide range of ideas from the big companies in the U.S., but many of them seem to be focused on using digital assistants to make life a bit easier. Microsoft wants to help you remember where you put your keys; Google wants to remind you of how much you're spending on lunch; and Apple wants you to know if you've cracked your windshield. All things that could take a little load off of your mind.

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.

Alphabet

Getting insight out of your images

How hard is it to keep track of how much you've spent or where you've been in a given week? Considering I can't remember what I even had for breakfast yesterday, I'd say it can be quite hard. People are increasingly taking snaps of everything in their lives, and Google is interested in actually pulling key information out of those photos.

In this patent, you ask a virtual assistant how much you've spent over the week, and the assistant could pull photos of all the receipts you took that week, read the totals of all of them, and add them together. That could be super useful for people who have to do a lot of expenses, or are just extremely forgetful, like me.

Baby monitor

This isn't really new but an interesting ownership discovery. Last year, Verily partnered with Pampers to create a suite of baby-monitoring products, including a connected camera. In the release at the time, Verily said it designed the sensor and software technology stack, but it seems it also holds the actual design patent for the camera.

Amazon

Expandable robot-controlled shelves

Amazon has built some of the most complex product-storage and fulfillment warehouses in the world, but they generally take up a ton of space, existing in massive footprints in areas where land is cheap. But that isn't always the most effective way to get products to consumers in densely populated areas. Micro-fulfillment setups, often involving complex conveyor belts and robots, have started to take off recently, and it seems that Amazon is looking to join in the trend.

This patent outlines an expandable conveyor-belt storage system that can use robots to sort and pack their moving shelves. It could be a way for the company to get products closer to the people it's delivering to, in smaller spaces than it's usually occupied.

Solving puzzles to get discounts

Would you be more willing to buy something if you got a discount on it for solving a puzzle? That seems to be something Amazon is exploring in its latest patent. It outlines a function on a shopping site, or through voice assistants and texts, where you could win a percentage off the cost of an item you're searching for by solving a puzzle about the item or the store. It could be something like what shoes a celebrity is wearing in a photo, or what was the last thing you bought off the site. The idea would be to drive further loyalty to the company and, of course, sell some more stuff.

Apple

Detecting cracked windshields

It's super dangerous to drive around with a cracked windshield, but sometimes tiny cracks are difficult to notice. Apple's new patent — for a vehicle it's definitely maybe probably not potentially for sure working on — wants to fix that. A system built into the windshields and other windows on a car would be able to take electrical measurements of the surface of the glass to spot any deficiencies and then alert the driver to get it fixed. I wonder if Apple cars would also be made out of glass that definitely needs a protective case on it at all times to keep them safe.

Connected clothing and fabrics

Have you ever wished the inanimate objects around your home were more interactive? Apparently Apple has. The company's new patent outlines a way of adding electrical sensors to woven fabrics, allowing you to use them to control a computer. In some examples in the patent, the applications sound pretty familiar to Google's Jacquard project, although the patent suggests also being able to do things like use the connected fabric to control your computer's cursor, rather than just control the music on your phone.

But other implementations suggest adding the tech into "a cloth, rug, tapestry, upholstery or other fabric-based article"; I could see a future Apple rug that knows to turn on the lights when someone steps on it for the first time that day, or a couch with a dimmer switch built in. It's a brave new world where our furniture may one day need system updates.

Facebook

Turning pictures into stories

If you've ever uploaded a bunch of photos to Facebook from a holiday, you've probably left it up to your followers to figure out what you actually did on vacation, rather than write a description for your whole trip. No one has time for that. But a new patent from Facebook wants to help you out, with a system that could create a narrative out of the shots you upload. Conversely, it could also help select photos, based on your tastes (from what you've liked and shared on the social network), for a post that you've drafted. Perhaps it won't be long until all our creativity is outsourced to algorithms.

Microsoft

Voice assistants remembering things you've forgotten

We love to say that voice assistants are always listening to us, but sometimes that can actually be pretty useful. Microsoft's patent suggests using voice assistants' always-on function to track things around your house that you might've forgotten. How many times have you misplaced your keys or forgotten whether you locked the front door? Microsoft suggests training an algorithm on the sounds of common household objects and events — like dropping the keys on the counter or locking a door — and then using those sounds' proximity to smart speakers to log them as events, which a user could then ask about. Alexa may soon be able to tell you where you last left your keys, or Google could tell you whether you left the oven on, solving some of the anxieties everyone tends to face in daily life.

Blockchain-based IoT devices for supply chains

This is one of the rare enterprise uses of blockchain technology that sounds promising. Microsoft's patent envisions IoT devices to track products' movements along a supply chain and ensure they're meeting the standards agreed upon by the companies involved. The patent lays out the example of an IoT device that's loaded with an immutable smart contract agreed upon by the shipper and the customer that states the shipper's freezer container can't get warmer than a certain temperature. The second the temperature threshold is breached, the contract is breached, alerting everyone involved. This would ensure that produce being shipped is actually being done so safely — and that all the chicken I buy (which is a lot) won't kill me.

Turning a regular pen into a digital one

If you've ever used a computer stylus, you've probably noticed that it can't really replicate the feeling of actually drawing on paper with a pen. Microsoft's new patent doesn't want to: Instead of trying to replicate it, it suggests adding a digital element to a physical pen, using a connected cartridge that could be inserted into a regular pen. You'd be able to write or draw like normal, but have what you're doing be captured digitally. It's the best of both worlds.

The metaverse is coming, and Robinhood's IPO is here

Plus, what we learned from Big Tech's big quarter.

Image: Roblox

On this episode of the Source Code podcast: First, a few takeaways from another blockbuster quarter in the tech industry. Then, Janko Roettgers joins the show to discuss Big Tech's obsession with the metaverse and the platform war that seems inevitable. Finally, Ben Pimentel talks about Robinhood's IPO, and the company's crazy route to the public markets.

For more on the topics in this episode:

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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 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.

Facebook wants to be like Snapchat

Facebook is looking to make posts disappear, Google wants to make traffic reports more accurate, and more patents from Big Tech.

Facebook has ephemeral posts on its mind.

Image: Protocol

Welcome to another week of Big Tech patents. Google wants to make traffic reports more accurate, Amazon wants to make voice assistants more intelligent, Microsoft wants to make scheduling meetings more convenient, and a ton more.

As always, remember that 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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Karyne Levy

Karyne Levy ( @karynelevy) is the West Coast editor at Protocol. Before joining Protocol, Karyne was a senior producer at Scribd, helping to create the original content program. Prior to that she was an assigning editor at NerdWallet, a senior tech editor at Business Insider, and the assistant managing editor at CNET, where she also hosted Rumor Has It for CNET TV. She lives outside San Francisco with her wife, son and lots of pets.

Protocol | China

China’s edtech crackdown isn’t what you think. Here’s why.

It's part of an attempt to fix education inequality and address a looming demographic crisis.

In the past decade, China's private tutoring market has expanded rapidly as it's been digitized and bolstered by capital.

Photo: Getty Images

Beijing's strike against the private tutoring and ed tech industry has rattled the market and led observers to try to answer one big question: What is Beijing trying to achieve?

Sweeping policy guidelines issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on July 24 and the State Council now mandate that existing private tutoring companies register as nonprofit organizations. Extracurricular tutoring companies will be banned from going public. Online tutoring agencies will be subject to regulatory approval.

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Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. She has spent six years covering China from inside and outside its borders. Previously, she was a fellow at Asia Society's ChinaFile and a Beijing-based producer for CNN. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. Shen Lu is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers, a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry.

It’s soul-destroying and it uses DRM, therefore Peloton is tech

"I mean, the pedals go around if you turn off all the tech, but Peloton isn't selling a pedaling product."

Is this tech? Or is it just a bike with a screen?

Image: Peloton and Protocol

One of the breakout hits from the pandemic, besides Taylor Swift's "Folklore," has been Peloton. With upwards of 5.4 million members as of March and nearly $1.3 billion in revenue that quarter, a lot of people are turning in their gym memberships for a bike or a treadmill and a slick-looking app.

But here at Protocol, it's that slick-looking app, plus all the tech that goes into it, that matters. And that's where things got really heated during our chat this week. Is Peloton tech? Or is it just a bike with a giant tablet on it? Can all bikes be tech with a little elbow grease?

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Karyne Levy

Karyne Levy ( @karynelevy) is the West Coast editor at Protocol. Before joining Protocol, Karyne was a senior producer at Scribd, helping to create the original content program. Prior to that she was an assigning editor at NerdWallet, a senior tech editor at Business Insider, and the assistant managing editor at CNET, where she also hosted Rumor Has It for CNET TV. She lives outside San Francisco with her wife, son and lots of pets.

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