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Apple has an idea for wearables made entirely out of fabric

Plus smart syringes, connected T-shirts, nanoparticle-detecting wearables, and other patents from Big Tech.

Apple's patent for fabric wearables

Apple seems to be exploring other, less fragile ways of building wearables.

Image: USPTO

It feels like I've been doing these weekly patent roundups for an eternity now, but that's mainly because the pandemic has completely destroyed my concept of time. But regardless, every so often, a week comes along that shows how many amazing (and sometimes plain crazy) ideas these companies are working on. We have smart syringes and wearables that can detect magnetic particles in your bloodstream from Alphabet, T-shirts that can show texts from Microsoft, and smart floors from Amazon. What a time to be alive.

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

Smart syringes

So many things terrify me about going to the doctor, but relatively high up on that list is a technician inadvertently injecting me with air instead of a vaccine, leading to an embolism and my death. I just try not to think about it, but Verily is apparently trying to do something about it with this patent for smart syringes. They would be able to detect and ping a health care worker's device if a syringe wasn't primed with an "air shot," which is used to get bubbles out of the fluid in the syringe. I would very much be a fan of this technology seeing the light of day.

Medical wearables

Wearables are quickly moving step-tracking devices to products that can potentially diagnose life-threatening illnesses, and it seems Verily's concept for a medical wearable is just that. Verily already has a watch that it offers to collect research data for its projects, but this is seemingly a step beyond that. The patent even suggests introducing "magnetic nanoparticles" into the wearer's body that the wearable would be able to sense and use to derive "clinically relevant" information, like whether someone is at an increased risk of a stroke or gangrene.

Amazon

Smart floors

Everything in the house is getting smart — but what about your floors? Amazon's new patent outlines a way of letting people into facilities without access gates, where smart tiles on the floor and connected devices on the user could talk to each other to determine whether that person has the right credentials. In one example in the patent, the floor tile would actually connect directly to the smart device by using the person's body as a circuit to connect the two. Hopefully the voltage wouldn't need to be very high.

Building drones out of shape memory materials

I always thought it was extremely cool that "The Dark Knight's" Batman had a cape that could turn into a rigid wing with a small electric charge. It seems that Amazon is trying to turn the Caped Crusader's sci-fi concept into something useful: Its patent describes using shape memory materials in the actuators on drone propellers to allow the drone to fly in different ways. It could also make the drone less prone to failures, as there would be fewer moving parts needed. It's not quite as impressive as taking down foes in Gotham City, but it might help packages get to you a little quicker.

Apple

Time to learn a new word

This isn't one of Apple's most revolutionary patents — it's for the design of the way it wraps its charging cables — but it taught me a new word, so I thought you might want to know it, too. Apparently when you loop up a cord, that's called hanking, and that's all this patent is for, a "hanked cable." Apparently the word comes from the old Norse hǫnk, which would be way better to say, in my opinion.

Fabric wearables

The Apple Watch is great, until you trip and smack the glass face into a door jamb or the battery swells up and explodes the face. Apple seems to be exploring other, less fragile ways of building wearables. It won a patent this week for an entirely fabric wearable that could have lights embedded to display information. It could also be used to tether another device to your hand, the patent suggests, which would probably be helpful if iPhones keep getting bigger. Apple also won a patent for fabric sensors, which could help it embed some of the Watch's existing tech into a more flexible device in the future.

Facebook

Tracking you on other social networks

Given that Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp, it wouldn't be wildly surprising to learn that it could connect your disparate profiles together to get a more complete picture of who you are. But what about sites it doesn't own? This patent outlines a tracking system that could determine, based on the information that Facebook already has on you, whether you have profiles on other social or shopping sites. It could compare your profile photos, as well as demographic information it has, to link them together. You abandoned your cart on Target or posted a photo of flowers on Flickr? Prepare yourself for an ad on Facebook for a flowery dress from Target!

Scraping other sites for information

In a similarly themed patent this week, Facebook also outlined a technical model for scraping information off of a webpage and onto its sites. This could be to advertise directly to you when a company adds a new product that it thinks might appeal to you. And personally, I can't wait to buy Coat House's Iridescent Stadium Jacket from Big Company.

Microsoft

Shirts that say how you feel

Have you ever wished you could express yourself with the clothes you wear? I don't mean vibrant colors or crazy fashions, but literally communicating how you feel. Apparently that's something Microsoft is exploring. This patent is for a textile with LEDs and fiber-optics woven in that can be controlled to display text or images. Who needs Facebook status updates when you can just wear your heart emoji on your sleeve?

Calorie-counting the food you buy

Have you ever wished Siri could shame you into eating better? Probably not, but this new idea from Microsoft could maybe help you eat a bit better. The patent suggests a system that ties into a virtual assistant, which would have nutritional info from food vendors as well as access to your purchase history. Whenever you bought something, the assistant would be able to tell you how many calories you've consumed, and whether that aligns with health goals you've set, like losing weight, and any health issues you have. It could also recommend suggestions for healthier food from restaurants you go to, but chances are, if you ordered a breakfast burrito, you made a very conscious choice not to have something healthy like oatmeal for breakfast, so I'm not sure how persuasive an assistant is likely to be in this situation.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

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.

People

Google's union has big goals — and big roadblocks

Absence of dues, retaliation fears and small numbers could pose problems for the union's dream of collective bargaining, but Googlers are undeterred.

Recruiting union members beyond the early adopters has had its challenges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

When the Alphabet Workers Union launched with more than 200 Googlers at the beginning of the year, it saw a quick flood of new sign-ups, nearly quadrupling membership over a few weeks. But even with the more than 710 members it now represents, the union still stands for just a tiny fraction of Google's more than 200,000 North American employees and contractors. The broader Alphabet workforce could prove difficult to win over, which is a hurdle that could stand in the way of the group's long-term ambitions for substantive culture change and even collective bargaining.

The initial boom of interest from Googlers was thrilling for Alex Peterson, a software engineer and union spokesperson. "It's really reinvigorating what it means to actually be a community of Googlers, which is something that's been eroding over the past four or five years, or even longer."

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Politics

Facebook’s Oversight Board won’t save it from the Trump ban backlash

The Board's decision on whether to reinstate Trump could set a new precedent for Facebook. But does the average user care what the Board has to say?

A person holds a sign during a Free Speech Rally against tech companies, on Jan. 20 in California.

Photo: Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Two weeks after Facebook suspended former President Donald Trump's account indefinitely, Facebook answered a chorus of calls and referred the case to its newly created Oversight Board for review. Now, the board has 90 days to make a call as to whether Trump stays or goes permanently. The board's decision — and more specifically, how and why it arrives at that decision — could have consequences not only for other global leaders on Facebook, but for the future of the Board itself.

Facebook created its Oversight Board for such a time as this — a time when it would face a controversial content moderation decision and might need a gut check. Or a fall guy. There could be no decision more controversial than the one Facebook made on Jan. 7, when it decided to muzzle one of the most powerful people in the world with weeks remaining in his presidency. It stands to reason, then, that Facebook would tap in its newly anointed refs on the Oversight Board both to earnestly review the call and to put a little distance between Facebook and the decision.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Politics

This is the future of the FTC

President Joe Biden has named Becca Slaughter acting chair of the FTC. In conversation with Protocol, she laid out her priorities for the next four years.

FTC commissioner Becca Slaughter may be President Biden's pick for FTC chair.

Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

Becca Slaughter made a name for herself last year when, as a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission, she breastfed her newborn baby during video testimony before the Senate, raising awareness about the plight of working parents during the pandemic.

But on Thursday, Slaughter's name began circulating for other reasons: She was just named as President Joe Biden's pick for acting chair of the FTC, an appointment that puts Slaughter at the head of antitrust investigations into tech giants, including Facebook.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
People

Amazon’s head of Alexa Trust on how Big Tech should talk about data

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, explains what it takes to get people to feel comfortable using your product — and why that is work worth doing.

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, has been working on tech privacy for decades.

Photo: Amazon

Anne Toth has had a long career in the tech industry, thinking about privacy and security at companies like Yahoo, Google and Slack, working with the World Economic Forum and advising companies around Silicon Valley.

Last August she took on a new job as the director of Alexa Trust, leading a big team tackling a big question: How do you make people feel good using a product like Alexa, which is designed to be deeply ingrained in their lives? "Alexa in your home is probably the closest sort of consumer experience or manifestation of AI in your life," she said. That comes with data questions, privacy questions, ethical questions and lots more.

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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.

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