yesMike MurphyNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Power

Apple wants to make your tablet see-through

Plus, Microsoft listening to your calls, Google reading your social media posts, Facebook reading your thoughts and other patents from big tech.

Aziz Ansari and Chris Pratt sitting at a bar

If the Gryzzl tablet is good enough for "Parks & Recreation," it's good enough for us.

Photo: Courtesy of NBC

This week, big tech is acutely interested in knowing more about you to better serve you ads and finding zany new ways of displaying you those ads and more, from curved VR glasses to transparent displays to car seats that turn into screens. If we ever get to go outside again, some of these patents may well be the foundation for some of the tech we use. But if not, at least Amazon's new patent on computer vision will help keep out the people we don't want in our homes.

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

Figuring out which teams you like

How do you know if someone's a Red Sox fan? Don't worry; they'll tell you. Red Sox fans are some of the most vocal, fervent sports fans I've ever met, so I'm not sure Google's new patent would be all that necessary for them. But the gist is that a social network system would be able to infer interests and activities of a user based on where they are and what they post about. If they're based in Boston's Copley Square and post about the Sox, it's highly likely they know where the Green Monster is. The system would then know to tailor its advertising to a Boston-based Sox fan — perhaps they're in the mood for a nice pair of red socks, or a second baseman?

Curved displays for VR glasses

Most VR headsets today rely on flat displays and lenses to immerse the wearer in a virtual world, but if the display actually wrapped around their head, it might feel a little more real. Google's patent for "non-planar displays" would aim to do just that. The patent also draws out a pretty snazzy-looking design for what these future headsets could even look like.

Turning down your keyboard lights when it's time for bed

Most smartphones and computers have software to adjust the color temperature of the screen to be a little softer on the eyes at nighttime, which studies suggest can make it easier to fall asleep after a long screen-time session. But many devices also have backlit keyboards now, which tend to just produce their own blinding shade of white light when turned on. Google's patent outlines a system that would adjust the temperature and color of the lights on those keys in much the same way that screens now dim. It won't stop parents from saying their kids' phones are the reason they're staying up all night, though.

Amazon

Using computer vision to let strangers and robots into your house

Amazon already has a system that can use cameras and smart locks to let people into your home for things like package deliveries, but its new patent involves the system operating a little more autonomously. In the patent, the system could recognize that a home chef has arrived at your door to prepare you dinner (something we can obviously all relate to), or that a delivery robot is here to drop off a package, and let them in if it's safe. This could be determined by pinging that person (or robot) to make sure it's them, and then letting them know things about your house, like that you have a dog that might jump them when they step inside. Hopefully the system would know the difference between a licensed professional and a guy who just happens to own a chef's toque.

Apple

Transparent displays

Perhaps some day soon the trope from just about every sci-fi movie ever will become a reality. According to a new patent from Apple, the company is looking into displays that are either partially or entirely transparent. The patent suggests the displays could be found on any sort of device, including MacBooks or iPhones, and as you'd expect, they'd feature a bezel made of something opaque that would house all of the actual components to leave you with a large blank space to see through. This might be useful for some applications, like augmented reality, but is it something we'd actually want all the time? In movies, screens are often see-through so you can still see the actors on the other side.

Turning your car's back seat into a computer

Who needs a transparent display when your whole car can be a computer screen? Another patent from Apple this week sees the company exploring what infotainment systems in the back of vehicles (autonomous or otherwise) might look like. In the patent, a small center console could let a passenger choose to see whatever they're looking at — such as the map directions the car is following — blown up to cover the entire backseat area of the car. The materials used for the carseat, floor and doors would let light shine through, allowing them to turn into one massive computer screen. Stick a camera on the front of the car, and you could definitely see a future where someone makes a program where it looks like their backseat is a magic carpet flying along the expressway. It's a whole new world.


Facebook

Carbon nanotubes!

If you've followed any tech media over the last decade or so (including this jerk), you've likely been convinced that everything in the future will be made of carbon nanotubes. To date, that has not proven to be the case. But some companies are still looking at ways to use the difficult-to-produce super-materials, and apparently that includes Facebook. Its patent outlines an electrical connector made using nanotubes (and some less-futuristic materials), but whether we'll actually see things like these outside of a lab is another story.

Neuromuscular signal reader

Have you ever wished computers knew what you were going to ask them before you did? Personally I just wish they knew what I meant when I asked them things, which is apparently still too much for Siri. Facebook's new patent, likely stemming from its brain-computer interface work, looks to use electromyography sensors (which measure electrical signals in muscles) to figure out what you're typing while you're still typing it. This would theoretically give a computer more time to answer your question, as well as improve reaction times in video games. I just hope we get to a point soon that when I ask Siri to turn the lights off, she doesn't turn them on in a different room.

Microsoft

Listening to your phone calls to serve you ads

Have you ever heard the myth about Facebook listening in to your conversations and using the info to serve you ads? It's (almost certainly) not actually doing that, but what if someone else were? This new patent from Microsoft describes a VoIP system where conversations could be mined for words and phrases that could indicate something one of the speakers is interested in buying. Because who doesn't want their conversations about a truck they're looking at to be used for future marketing touch points?

People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

Keep Reading Show less
Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

Keep Reading Show less
Policy

Bad news for Big Tech: Bipartisan agreement on antitrust reform

Democrats and Republicans found common ground during the first House hearing on antitrust of the new Congress. Here's what that means for tech giants.

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee held their first hearing of the 117th Congress.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

During the first House antitrust hearing of the new Congress, Democratic chairman David Cicilline and Republican ranking member Ken Buck made it clear they intend to forge ahead with a series of bipartisan reform efforts that could cut into the power of the largest technology companies.

"We will work on a serious bipartisan basis to advance these reforms together," Cicilline said during his opening remarks Thursday.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
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.

Power

Cord cutting in 2020: Pay TV industry lost 5.5 million subscribers

Subscriber defections slowed toward the end of the year, but there's no end to cord cutting in sight.

The pay TV industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift.

Photo: Nicolas J Leclercq/Unsplash

The five biggest pay TV providers lost a combined 5.5 million subscribers in 2020, narrowly staying below the 5.8 million subscribers the companies collectively lost in 2019. Subscriber losses slowed a bit toward the end of the year, but pandemic-related cutbacks still hit the industry hard — and may have led to hundreds of thousands additional cancellations if not for industry-wide billing relief efforts.

The industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift, with pay TV subscribers switching from traditional operators like Comcast and AT&T to tech companies like Google and Hulu and their respective pay TV services. However, a closer look at pay TV trends suggests that these gains may be temporary, as so-called skinny bundles fall out of favor with consumers once operators are forced to increase their price tags to make up for ever-increasing network licensing costs.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories