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Apple has an idea for social-distancing selfies

Plus Alphabet's brain interfaces, vacuum-wrapped top hats, Microsoft's eye-tracker, and other patents from Big Tech.

Apple selfie patent

If Apple's patent becomes a product, you could take group selfies without having to stand so close together.

Image: USPTO

It has been a very long week, and so I was hoping that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would come through with some zany patents to take my mind off the world. It did — and in a big way, too. This week included some truly mad patents, including Amazon coming up with a way to vacuum-seal top hats for some reason, an iPad that looks like it would survive being run over by a car, a neckband for VR, and inexplicably, the skyline of the City of Brotherly Love. Big Tech had a big week for random patents.

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

Neural interfaces

If you're going to be implanting computer interfaces into someone's brain, I guess you're going to want to make sure you have some way of plugging stuff into them. This new patent from Verily describes a few different models for connecting electrodes and other devices to things that can interact with various parts of the human body. The patent gives examples of existing medical-monitoring devices like blood-glucose and pacemakers, but the idea in the patent would be to connect new devices to monitor the brain, or neurostimulators that deal with chronic pain. Hopefully they're using USB-C ports, because I really don't want to have to buy a dongle for my brain.

Using your environment to change your volume

Countless times a day, I move from one situation to another and the background noise wildly changes in volume and blows out whatever I'm listening to. Or at least that used to happen when I actually went outside. Still, Google's new patent for software that could dynamically adjust the volume of your music based on the ambient sounds around you seems pretty useful. But I think my favorite part of this patent, as a former Philadelphia resident, is the inexplicable inclusion of the Philly skyline in these patent drawings:

Making drones safer for humans and pets

For the second time in as many months, Amazon is looking for ways to deliver packages by drone while avoiding the fate suffered by Enrique Iglesias. This patent outlines a sensor system that would create a "virtual shroud" around the drone, so that any furry friend, child or adult (who should definitely know better) who puts their paws near the moving blades of the propellers wouldn't lose an appendage. The drone would sense the incoming hand and either switch off the rotors near the hand, or all of them. Then again, its patent last month — where the drones would just deliver products by lowering them down on a winch — still seems safer.

Apple

Socially distant group selfies

This patent feels perfect for the time we're living in. You can't be with your friends in person, but that doesn't mean you don't want to pose for great selfies to post on Instagram. Apple has a solution: It outlines software that would operate a bit like a group FaceTime, where one person can invite several people to take selfies, and the software would superimpose them in a different position behind the organizer. This technology seems like it would also be great for families that insist on making Christmas cards long after the kids have moved out.

A zany folding tablet

Have you ever wished your tablet looked more like it was designed by Playskool? You may be in luck. Apple's new patent explores a design for a modular tablet and case that can be manipulated in several different ways to turn it into a more traditional laptop shape, a standalone display and everything in between. The case is a chunky tubular shape, broken out into sections that could be individually manipulated to prop the tablet up in various positions. The case could even hide a stylus in one of its tubes, as well as sensors, or even small displays to show things like battery life and the weather. That's a lot of additional functionality, but seemingly a lot more heft, too:

Facebook

Real-time social data lookup

Facebook is apparently exploring a way of providing social information on a person in real time. Like in so many sci-fi movies, the software would appear in a dialing application, so when you were going to call a person or a business, the app would tell you how you're connected to the person, or how many of your friends like the place. The patent suggests that if you're dialing a friend's number, it would help you check that you're calling the right person, as it would show their profile picture and name — but who wouldn't have their friend's number stored on their phone? It also seems to open up a scenario where someone could just start dialing random numbers to see who's on the other end.

Virtual microphones

This patent outlines software for VR where any of the devices connected to a headset near the wearer could potentially pick up sound, which could be useful if you're moving around in the real world as you move through a VR environment. But what's most interesting about this patent is the pieces of hardware Facebook envisions acting as microphones. There are obvious things, like the (clearly Oculus-shaped) VR headset, but then there are other designs for products that Facebook is toying around with. The patent includes images of connected glasses, a neck band and a wearable that looks a lot like an old Fitbit. It's not clear if these are things Facebook is actively looking at making, or if it's just envisioning a way that other products could connect up to a user's VR experience.

Microsoft

DNA storage

Scientists have been researching ways to store data on DNA for years, as it could potentially provide a way for information to be stored for centuries without power and with minimal degradation. Apparently we're getting closer to turning that idea into a reality, and Microsoft is interested. The patent outlines ways to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to more easily edit data into DNA. Just think, one day we could see the very building blocks of life be used to store something as consequential as Windows 10.

"Random factoid generation"

Who needs a Snapple bottle cap when you have technology. I'm not quite sure why Microsoft is looking into building a piece of software that can generate random facts on command, though the patent suggests it could be fed into a virtual assistant program. I guess that would finally give me a reason to talk to Cortana.

Tracking eye health

This patent feels a little out of left field for Microsoft, but it could potentially be useful for the company's AI health care initiatives. It outlines a measurement system for keeping track of a patient's eye health, which could be used to predict how a patient's conditions develop over time. It gives the example of a child — whose eyes change every year as they grow — who comes in to the optometrist every year for their checkup. The software would note various characteristics of their eyes, and then build a forecast for the doctor to help determine what treatment, if any, they need, and when they should next come in for a checkup. Perhaps while Cortana is deciding if you have glaucoma or astigmatism, it can tell you a random factoid.

Protocol | Policy

Senate infrastructure bill: Who’s winning and losing in tech?

The $1 trillion bill covers everything from cyber to electric vehicles. But who's best positioned to seize the opportunity?

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes $550 billion in new spending.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There's a little something — and in some cases, a lotta something — for everyone in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that's currently getting hammered out in the Senate.

The $1 trillion bill includes $550 billion in new spending, of which tens of billions of dollars will go toward broadband expansion, low-income internet subsidies, electric vehicle investments, charging stations, cybersecurity and more. The outpouring of federal funding gives anyone from telecom giants to device manufacturers a lot to like.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. 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.

When the COVID-19 crisis crippled societies last year, the collective worldwide race for a cure among medical researchers put a spotlight on the immense power of big data analysis and how sharing among disparate agencies can save lives.

The critical need to exchange information among hundreds of international agencies or departments can be tough to pull off, especially if it's medical, financial or cybersecurity information that is highly protected by regulatory guardrails.

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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.
Protocol | Workplace

Silicon Valley has a new recruitment strategy: The four-day workweek

Everything you need to know about how tech companies are beta testing the 32-hour week.

Since the onset of COVID-19, more companies have begun to explore shortened workweeks.

Photo: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

At software company Wildbit, most employees are logged off on Fridays. That's not going to change anytime soon.

To Natalie Nagele, the company's co-founder and CEO, a full five days of work doesn't necessarily mean the company will get more stuff done. She pointed to computer science professor Cal Newport's book, "Deep Work," which explains how a person's ability to complete meaningful work cuts off after just about four hours. That book, Nagele told Protocol, inspired the company to move to a four-day workweek back in 2017.

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Sarah Roach

Sarah Roach is a reporter and producer at Protocol (@sarahroach_) where she contributes to Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. She is a recent graduate of George Washington University, where she studied journalism and mass communication and criminal justice. She previously worked for two years as editor in chief of her school's independent newspaper, The GW Hatchet.

Power

The game industry comes back down to Earth after its pandemic boom

Game company earnings reports this week show a decline from last year's big profits.

The game industry is slowing down as it struggles to maintain last year's record growth.

Photo: Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The video game industry is finally slowing down. After a year of unprecedented and explosive growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic, big game publishers and hardware makers are starting to see profits dip from their 2020 highs and other signs of a return to normalcy.

This week alone, Sony and Nintendo both posted substantial drops in profit compared to this time a year ago, with Sony's operating income down more than 40% and Nintendo's down 17%. Grand Theft Auto maker Take-Two Interactive saw a dip in revenue and said its forecast for the rest of the fiscal year would not match last year's growth, while EA posted a revenue bump but an operating income decline of more than 43% compared to this time a year ago. Ubisoft, which reported earnings last month, saw its sales and bookings this past quarter drop by 14% and 21%, respectively, when compared to a year ago.

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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.

Allocations wants to make it easier to invest in startups as a group

Now valued at $100 million, it's emerging from stealth to challenge Carta and Assure in the SPV market.

Kingsley Advani, CEO of Allocations, wants to make it easier to form SPVs.

Photo: Allocations

Software is eating the world, including the venture industry. Carta and Assure have made it easier than ever for people to band together on deals. AngelList's venture arm debuted new ways to create rolling funds. But the latest startup to challenge the incumbents in the space is Allocations, a Miami-based startup that's making it easy to create and close special purpose vehicles, or SPVs, in hours.

"If you look at Pinduoduo and group shopping, SPVs are group investing," said Kingsley Advani, Allocations' founder and CEO. Instead of one investor having to cough up millions, multiple people can write smaller checks in an SPV and invest as a cohort. It's a trend that's taken off in 2021 as investors compete to get into hot startups.

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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.

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