Apple wants to make phones work underwater

Inflatable boxes, insect traps, infinite crossword puzzles and other patents from Big Tech.

Apple has taken out a patent on a technique for making touchscreens work underwater.

Swiping with the fishes.

Source: USPTO/Apple

Hello and welcome to the last edition of the Big Tech patent roundup! Sadly as you read this, I'll have moved on from Protocol, but I couldn't head out without doing one more patent roundup. It just didn't feel right. So this is a bumper issue, with zany patents like an inflatable box from Amazon, underwater iPhones and insect traps from Microsoft. Hopefully these are enough to tide you over for … forever.

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

AR menus

Have you ever been to a diner with a giant, pages-long menu that has pictures of all their best sellers? They definitely make choosing easier, but it also makes the menu as long as the bible. This new idea from Google could make things simpler: The patent outlines a system for using codes on regular menus that could be scanned and, through a phone's camera, use AR to show what each dish looks like, without having to take up all the space on the menu. Assuming we ever go back to paper menus, that is.

Recommending cover songs based on what you've just listened to

I could see this being really useful to Taylor Swift fans right now. Say you've just mainlined "You Belong With Me" but realize it's the version that Taylor Swift no longer owns, so the streaming service you're listening on recommends you listen to the new "Taylor's Version," along with some other great covers of it. That's basically the gist of this patent: finding covers of songs you love that you might also enjoy. It's also a great way to find new artists similar to ones you already love.

Writing apps with human language

Have you ever tried to write a program? Chances are if you're a Protocol reader, you might have. It's quite difficult! It's the reason programming is such a specialized, in-demand profession. But advances in natural-language understanding and processing could mean that it's not long before anyone with an idea can turn it into an app. That's basically what this patent suggests, using a system that can understand simple commands, and turn them into a program people can use. One of the examples given is to streamline a company's order process, tracking all orders and flagging complicated ones as high priority, which a person describes to the system, and it executes — no coding knowledge required.



Crossword puzzle generator

If you are addicted to crosswords, and finish the ones in your daily paper before your morning coffee, perhaps this patent could be for you. It envisions a system that can auto-generate crossword puzzles based on the headlines of the day, primarily using the proper nouns that the software finds in news articles. Given how much seems to be going on every single day these days, this could mean there's a near-endless stream of puzzles to satiate even the most ardent cruciverbalists.

Amazon

Group voice chats

Are party lines still a thing? I guess that's basically what Clubhouse is, just in a $4 billion app. If you want to recreate that vibe at home, sitting on the couch and not feeling like reaching for your phone, perhaps in the future you'll be able to just call on Alexa. You can already do a voice call to anyone with an Alexa-enabled device, but this patent envisions being able to add others to your call, much like the characters in the dystopian drama "Years and Years" do with their voice assistants. Hopefully your group calls won't also include the disembodied voice of dead aunts who have been recreated in an Al netherworld.

Inflatable shipping containers

This is a pretty nifty idea for cutting down on the massive amounts of cardboard and packing materials that Amazon uses every single day. Instead of the traditional cardboard box filled with bubble wrap, this design involves two pieces of a harder material flat-packed with a flexible middle material that can be inflated. The box can then be sealed and shipped off the customer, who can then reuse the packaging or theoretically send it back to Amazon. I'm not sure how seamless the return logistics would be here, but if Amazon could figure it out, it could be a serious boon to the world's trees.

Apple

Using your iPhone underwater

Most iPhones and Apple Watches from the last few years have been water-resistant enough that a dip in the pool with one won't damage them, but actually using one underwater has been near impossible. While you're not likely going to start answering emails while scuba diving, it might be nice to be able to snap a photo or two, and this patent envisions being able to do just that. You'd let the device know that you're about to go underwater, which would tell it to basically decrease the touchscreen's sensitivity, where it only registers the very firm press of a finger on the screen as an input, rather than all the water washing against it. Now your colleagues will have to guess whether that underwater Zoom background is truly real or fake.

Haptic vibrations for AirPods

Apple is exploring how haptic notifications would work for things like AirPods, AR glasses and other head-worn devices. In this patent, it looks into exploring adding vibrations to these devices to help draw the wearer's attention to something. In the case of AirPods, it could be that only the right earpiece buzzes, which alerts the user to look up to the right. That could be because someone in front of them is speaking, or perhaps because they're playing a VR game and the haptics are guiding them to look at a certain area of the display to check out an incoming message. It'll be like an Apple Watch, but inside your ear canal.

Intelligently reminding you to charge your devices

There are two types of people in the world: those who plug their phone in every night when they go to bed, and those who just wing it. Either way, you likely have rather distinct usage patterns for when you need your phone and when it's sitting idle. Instead of just getting a notification that your phone is nearly dead, this patent outlines a system that would notify users (hopefully on another device) that they should probably plug in their phone now if they want it to be charged for when they're next likely going to need it. Hopefully they heed those advance warnings, or they could just learn to be sensible and plug their phone in at night.

Apple Watch packaging

I've poked fun at Apple many times over the years for patenting some pretty inconsequential things, like lanyards, paper bags and those wooden cubes that are impossible to sit on at Apple Stores. But this design patent for the Apple Watch packaging is actually worth it. It's a lovely design that unfolds around the watch as you open it, unlike the iPhone box, which is just a rectangle that's difficult to open because the lid is sealed on so tightly.

Facebook

Crowdsourced geolocation … for ads

Several companies, including Apple, have started exploring the idea of using anonymous crowdsourced location data to help you find your lost gadgets. Facebook appears to be jumping on this trend, but in typical Facebook fashion, it's just to sell ads better. In the scenario laid out by the patent, a person could be walking nearby a store, and even though you've not interacted with it, beacons in the store could ping nearby devices, which could then triangulate that you're nearby (using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi) and push you deals enticing you to come in. Maybe you'll actually want to lose your devices soon.

Automated newsfeed across all apps

Facebook has long been characterized by its News Feed, a Facebook-defined list of the best posts by the people you follow. It seems that the company is interested in taking this idea even further, pulling in updates from every app on your phone. While it might be somewhat concerning that Facebook envisions giving the headlines from the news apps you follow the same weight as the dessert your friend just posted on Instagram, the names for the fake apps in its examples in the patent are amazing. Do you just love listening to music on Sportify and posting photos on Introgram?

Microsoft

An insect trap

I'm not entirely sure why Microsoft has gotten into the field of predicting epidemics (feel like there's one it might've missed, I'm not sure?), but apparently it has. This patent describes a novel design for trapping mosquitoes to study the diseases they carry, to help prevent their spread to humans. One thing that's for certain: It has windows.

Browsing on multiple devices at once

Have you ever tried to get something important done on your phone? Half the time, the mobile site is terrible and you can't get whatever you need to do to load properly. Or have you ever tried to do just about anything on a smart TV only to realize that typing using an on-screen keyboard is the slowest, dullest activity on Earth? This patent envisions taking the best parts of various modalities and turning them into one experience. Say you're browsing on your phone and want to use a larger display: The system in Microsoft's patent could toss the part of the page you want to see (like a movie or your calendar) onto the big screen, while leaving the part you need to interact with (like a keyboard) on your smartphone. It's the best of both worlds. Now, where's my Lumia?

Fintech

Gavin Newsom shows crypto some California love

“A more flexible approach is needed,” Gov. Newsom said in rejecting a bill that would require crypto companies to get a state license.

Strong bipartisan support wasn’t enough to convince Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Vox Media

The Digital Financial Assets Law seemed like a legislative slam dunk in California for critics of the crypto industry.

But strong bipartisan support — it passed 71-0 in the state assembly and 31-6 in the Senate — wasn’t enough to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

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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.

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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.”

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James Daly
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Workplace

Slack’s rallying cry at Dreamforce: No more meetings

It’s not all cartoon bears and therapy pigs — work conferences are a good place to talk about the future of work.

“We want people to be able to work in whatever way works for them with flexible schedules, in meetings and out of meetings,” Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua told Protocol at Dreamforce 2022.

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Lizzy Lawrence

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LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

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LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

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Nat Rubio-Licht

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Policy

SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

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This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

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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.

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