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Are new AirPods on the way from Apple?

VR wearables, simple health records, drones on trucks and other patents from Big Tech.

Are new AirPods on the way from Apple?
Image: Apple/USPTO

I don't know what single piece of news could possibly be at the top of your mind right now, but I'm very glad you decided to take a moment away to see what new things Big Tech won patents for this week.

It's been a very long week, but even with everything else going on, the patent officers over at the USPTO steadfastly carried out their jobs and awarded, as ever, some zany patents to the biggest companies in tech. Amazon is trying to land drones on trucks; Facebook wants to turn your wrist into a projector; Apple wants to turn your car into your office; and Microsoft just wants to make it a little easier to schedule meetings.

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

Satellite-based mesh network

If you've just put in your preorder for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, you're probably excited for your first 5G phone and how much faster it'll seem. But Google is thinking much bigger than just a faster cellular network; this patent outlines a global communication network that uses satellites and weather balloons to connect houses, boats, planes and everything else to a meshed communications network. It's like its sister company Loon, but on steroids.

Amazon

Landing drones on trucks

This sounds like something out of a spy B-movie, but it's a thing. UPS and Mercedes, among others, have been toying around with the idea of landing drones on trucks, in some cases to allow delivery vehicles to essentially be in two places at once as the drone flies off with a package in one direction while the driver goes off in another. And it seems Amazon is looking into a similar concept. It's not too much of a stretch to see its fleet of forthcoming electric vans pairing up with Amazon Prime Air at some point in the future.



Apple

New AirPods design?

Apple is usually extremely careful about holding designs for forthcoming products very close to its chest, but this is an interesting wrinkle in what the design of future AirPods might look like. Rumors have started swirling that the next versions of the Pro earbuds will have an even shorter stem on them, and this patent from Apple explores how a design like that might work. Essentially, the stemless buds would have a movable "anchor" that could lock the bud into place in your ear, so that it wouldn't fall out, even without the counterbalance of a stem. It's unlikely we'll see new AirPods until next year, but hopefully then we can all look back at this patent and say, "Yes, Mike, you were so right." First time for everything.

Measuring your eyeball spacing

If you've ever had to buy glasses online, you probably know what "interpupillary distance" measures — it's the length between your two eyes — because you need to know it to get a pair of glasses that fit just right. Apple doesn't sell glasses right now, but there's a lot of talk that it soon will. To make sure they fit right, Apple will need to measure that pupillary distance, which this patent suggests doing using the depth sensors on a smartphone … like those you find on every iPhone released over the last few years.

Bringing EHRs together

Apple has been diving into the world of health informatics since it launched HealthKit back in 2014, and it has been increasing its foothold in health tech ever since. Without explicitly saying it, there's a sense that Apple wants to take a big slice of health care industry revenue, and one of the biggest things it could do is make the process of accessing and editing electronic health records easier for health care providers and patients. The patent outlines the process for providers to add a new EHR system to Apple Health — and how a patient can access their information on the system and add it to their Health app and connect it with all their other health data. It's a process that's still in the works but could help bring the future of health to your wrist.

Combining VR with real-world objects

Another long-rumored product Apple has been working on is a car, and the company has won a few patents in a similar vein to this one, which explores how to mitigate carsickness and boredom in autonomous vehicles with VR headsets. But what's interesting about this is potential applications beyond the car: The patent outlines how VR headsets can be used to re-create real-world experiences, like a desktop computer or a home theater, virtually. Could this be what the future of working at home looks like?

Facebook

An AR projector wearable

This one feels particularly futuristic … or should I say "Futurama." Facebook's new patent toys with the idea of a wrist-worn wearable computer that could be used to interact with a VR or AR headset to project images into the wearer's field of view, and to track their movements in a virtual world. It could also work like a standalone wearable, if you were interested in having Facebook directly on your wrist. Interesting ideas aside, the patent's representation of what a person looks like from overhead is … something else. Generally, if you have to label the thing you're drawing to make it clear what you're talking about, you've probably done a poor job drawing it.



Status updates by location

What if everyone knew the second you went to the bar, or somewhere less savory, because your phone told all your Facebook friends? I'm not sure why exactly you'd want that — unless perhaps you're a child and your parents want to know your every move — but that's essentially what this patent outlines. I guess it could be pretty useful for those thirsty vacation status updates the second you land on your beach getaway, but otherwise it feels like something you wouldn't automatically want blasted to the world. Unless you're Steve Wozniak.

Microsoft

Automatic meeting scheduler

Finding time to schedule meetings that work for everyone involved is often annoying busy work, which is likely why we've had a few patents in these roundups over the month aiming to fix this. Microsoft's patent looks to find times that work for everyone that also tries to preserve periods for uninterrupted work during the day, because jumping between meetings and projects is a surefire way to ensure you get no work done. The best parts of this patent though are that in the art, the example person apparently writes in their own calendar "tennis w/ spouse," and their marketing team includes the Three Stooges:

Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

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Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

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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.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

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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.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well-established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

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Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

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