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Power

Facebook wants you to pay for links on Instagram

Digital T-shirts, real-time ads, Apple headphones and other patents from Big Tech.

Facebook wants you to pay for links on Instagram

At $2 a pop, it seems pretty pricey.

Image: USPTO and Facebook

It has been quite a week, so I'd suggest taking your mind off of things by reading about the wild and wonderful patents that Big Tech was awarded this week. Alphabet wants to suck your blood and inject you at the same time; Amazon wants to turn your living room into a light show; Apple is working on headphones; Facebook wants to finally give us links in Instagram comments (for a price!); and Microsoft wants our T-shirts to tell time. The future is going to be amazing.

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

Generating ads in real time

When a sports team wins a tournament, it only takes a few minutes before you start seeing ads for that team's merchandise, celebrating the win. Those tend to be made in advance with versions made for both teams winning. But what if they could be made in real time, for any event or outcome, like a movie winning an Oscar for best picture? Google is thinking about how templates, fed with live data from events, could be used to construct and sell ads the moment an event happens. Because heaven forbid you have to wait a bit after something happens to start selling against it.

One device to draw blood and inject medicine

This is a level of convenience I never knew I wanted. If you're like me and don't enjoy getting blood drawn or injections, and especially don't like doctor's appointments that require both, then this new concept from Verily might be for you. It's a device with a single needle that can extract blood and inject you in one go, using separate chambers inside the cartridge area for what's going in and what's coming out.

Amazon

Changing smart light colors through music

If you've ever seen Pink Floyd perform, you'll know that having a light show to go with the concert can be pretty neat. Amazon apparently wants to re-create that effect at home. Using information from what you're watching and listening to on your smart TV (or, presumably, your Fire device), a system could send signals to your smart lights to match their colors to what's on the screen. For example, if there are green trees and blue skies onscreen, the lights could change to match those colors in real time, turning your living room into a mini live venue. Who needs to go back outside?

Picking items up when the store is closed

With the world the way it is these days, you've probably done a fair amount of online shopping, either for delivery or pickup outside stores. And there have likely been times where you've left to go pick something up, thinking you had enough time to get there before the store closed, only to get stuck in traffic. Amazon wants to solve this by guessing your ETA based on when you leave. If its systems think you'll arrive after the store closes, it would offer you alternatives for getting your item, such as picking one up at another location that's still open, scheduling a delivery, or just canceling the thing if you really can't be bothered. This could definitely cut down on some wasted gas mileage.

Apple

Apple headphones

Apple is hosting an event Tuesday, and one of the new devices we're expecting to see is a pair of Apple-branded over-the-ear headphones. The company bought Beats back in 2014 and has had its Apple AirPods line since 2016, but it hasn't had wireless headphones of its own. This patent seems to suggest that they're likely very nearly here.

Autodrying gadgets

The Apple Watch has a water-resistant mode that expels any water trapped in the watch when you turn off that mode. Two new patents from Apple this week suggest it's looking at ways to do more than just expel the water: These patents look at ways to heat up recesses in devices, like microphone and speaker holes, as well as surfaces like glass, to keep them as dry as possible in wet environments. It'd be like a tiny, built-in hand dryer, but for the internals of your Apple gadgets.

Facebook

Links in Instagram captions

One of the single most annoying limitations of Instagram is that you can't put links in photo captions. If you're verified, or if you have at least 10,000 followers, you can add links to your Stories, though. There are workarounds for us normals, like writing "link in bio" or using URL shorteners (which I do on my amazing food blog), but none of them is as simple as a link in the caption would be. It seems that Instagram is toying around with adding that feature — for a price. This patent outlines a payments function where when you to put a URL in a caption, a pop-up appears asking if you'd like to pay $2 for the ability to activate the link. That sounds like it could get very costly if you'd want to add links to every post, but this is probably welcome news to Facebook investors.

Microsoft

Electronic yarn

Combining the best of the 21st century AD with the best of the 5th millennium BCE, Microsoft is apparently working on making yarn (which was, you guessed it, first invented thousands of years ago), by combining traditional fibers with electrical ones. The end result of eons of human technological evolution? Putting the time on your T-shirt:



Watching esports in VR

If you've ever tried to watch an esports match where more than one thing is happening at once (like any multiplayer shooting game or strategy games like StarCraft), it can get a little … confusing. One solution Microsoft is looking into is using VR as a way to see the entire world of the game while it's happening. The patent outlines ways to overlay information on the game in real time, as well as live chat functions, which will definitely never be abused by 12-year-olds.

Joining meetings on Xbox

This is a patent about figuring out how to let trusted users join business meetings on the device of their choosing, which is not particularly world-changing. But I do like that one of the examples in the patent is to join using an Xbox. Given we're all stuck at home, it'd be pretty easy to sneak in a few rounds of Fortnite between your team status calls:

Twitter’s future is newsletters and podcasts, not tweets

With Revue and a slew of other new products, Twitter is trying hard to move past texting.

We started with 140 characters. What now?

Image: Liv Iko/Protocol

Twitter was once a home for 140-character missives about your lunch. Now, it's something like the real-time nerve center of the internet. But as for what Twitter wants to be going forward? It's slightly more complicated.

In just the last few months, Twitter has rolled out Fleets, a Stories-like feature; started testing an audio-only experience called Spaces; and acquired the podcast app Breaker and the video chat app Squad. And on Tuesday, Twitter announced it was acquiring Revue, a newsletter platform. The whole 140-characters thing (which is now 280 characters, by the way) is certainly not Twitter's organizing principle anymore. So what is?

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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.

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.
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