Power

Facebook wants to make thought-hearing glasses

Plus smart glasses from Google, transforming drones, AR clothing and other patents from Big Tech.

Facebook wants to make thought-hearing glasses

It's the weekend! Time to switch my digital avatar's outfit from a suit to lounge pants. I don't actually live in VR yet (though I did try working in it this week), but a new patent from Amazon might make that a reality sooner rather than later. The company's also working on drones that could get deliveries to me even quicker than its other drones, and Facebook is working on making immersive videos work on any screen in my house. Who needs to go outside when I can bring the entire world to my couch? Big Tech's patents this week seem very on board with me staying at home as long as I want to.

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

More comfortable VR

Most VR headsets either rely on a smartphone or a built-in screen to display content. That pretty much limits every headset design to some variation of "a big set of goggles with a large flat area at the end." Google's new patent explores how a display that doesn't conform to a rigid single shape might look, and as the patent suggests, "this may be particularly useful for AR and VR headsets where space for optical systems is limited." The future of virtual reality — which may be coming to an office near you soon — might look a little less like ski goggles.


Mapping the trip home, too

This would be a supremely useful update to Google Maps. If you've ever searched for directions and set off on your trip without also looking at the traffic conditions for the way back, you've probably gotten stuck in some unexpected traffic jam before. The update suggested in this patent would show you how long the return leg of your trip would be, to more accurately reflect your entire journey. This probably would've been more useful back in the days before lockdown, when we all actually went outside to do things, but still.

Amazon

Transforming drones

If you thought a V-22 Osprey looks cool when it transforms between vertical and horizontal flight, this might be the drone for you. Amazon has a patent for a new delivery drone that can take off in a box-like shape, then fold out into something that looks closer to a traditional airplane while flying, and box back up again when hovering to land. It's a way to get the best of both modes of flight — landing in tight spaces using the hovering method and flying longer distances quicker using the plane shape — that could help it get Prime deliveries to customers quicker. Amazon is truly playing catch-up on deliveries in its home country, so hopefully this has moved well beyond conceptual planning — and signs suggest that it has.

Using AR to get clothes that fit

It's extremely annoying when you buy clothes online and they don't fit, but what else are you going to do? Go to a store and try things on? Not anymore, that's for sure. What if you had cameras to scan your physiology and figure out exactly what clothes would fit you before you bought them? And what if Amazon had that data? If that sounds appealing to you, the company's new patent might be of interest: It explores using digital avatars based on your proportions to create super-accurate virtual fitting rooms. It might make it easier to see how you look in this season's hottest fits, but are you going to want to send that footage of you in your underwear to Amazon to make it work?

Collectible AR creatures

Gotta catch 'em all. Amazon's patent outlines a system for offering digital collectibles along with physical purchases. Say you bought a new Pokémon game, and on the inside of the packaging there was a QR code that would unlock a digital version of Pikachu that you could interact with in AR — the more you buy, the more AR friends you could amass. And given how kids are, I could see this becoming a trend like Tamagotchi. (Kids still play with those, right?) Hopefully whoever ends up designing the final creatures for this comes up with something less terrifying than this hairless mole thing in the patent art:

Apple

A simple charging station for electric vehicles

Charging isn't the hardest part of owning an EV, but remembering to juice the thing is pretty key to using one, and Apple's new patent wants to remove that step from the process. Its new patent is for a connector plate that would sit on the back or front of a vehicle and match up with a corresponding plate in your garage. Much like the tennis ball hanging from the ceiling of yesteryear, the plate would be a guide for you to know when you've backed your car in enough to your parking spot, and the vehicle would sit charging until you next needed it. Hopefully Apple, the company known for its extremely considered designs, has put more thought into the actual car it may be building than the patent art suggests:

A more useful iPad case

The Magic Keyboard case for the new iPad Pro only came out about a month ago, but it seems the company is looking for ways to improve it already. The current model features a hinge and magnets that hold the iPad in a floating position above the keyboard, and hidden in the hinge is a USB-C charging port. The model envisioned in this new patent, however, replaces that port with a slot to dock and charge your Apple Pencil. This would be a great addition to the case that I would definitely use — if I had any idea where my Apple Pencil had gone.

Facebook

Controlling 360 videos on TV with your phone

You've been able to share 360-degree videos on Facebook for a while, but as cool as they can be, it's hard to capture the immersive majesty of "Planet Earth" on a 4-inch screen. This new patent would allow you to toss an image from your News Feed onto a bigger display, like a TV screen, while being able to rotate and navigate around the image by tilting your phone. It's a simple workaround that might make these sorts of videos more enjoyable — at least until Facebook convinces us all to buy Oculus headsets.

Thought-hearing glasses

This may sound like science fiction, but it's a technology that researchers at MIT have been working on for years. It involves using sensors to "hear" the words you say in your head — in the same way you "say" words when reading quietly to yourself — and turning that information into computer-readable data. If it works, it could actually make voice assistants not awkward to use in person, as you're not speaking out loud into the void. Facebook, which is exploring the world of brain-computer interfaces more broadly, appears to be looking into this field. Its patent suggests including sensors to capture these subvocalizations into a pair of smart glasses, conveniently designed like a pair of Oakleys from the mid-'80s:

Microsoft

Overeager virtual assistants

When I first scanned this patent, I felt like I was reading script drafts from an early version of "Her." The patent outlines a virtual assistant that can proactively reach out to its user and ask about setting up plans — but the way they're phrased in the screenshots included really makes it sound like they're asking for a date. In reality, it's just Cortana being a third wheel on other people's dates, scanning conversations for pertinent search terms and showing related information. For example, if someone asks if you want to go see a movie tonight, you could press the Cortana button to find out what's playing. Assuming you used Cortana. Which you don't.

Protocol | Fintech

Here’s everything going wrong at Binance

Binance trades far more crypto than rivals like Coinbase and FTX. Its regulatory challenges and legal issues in the U.S., EU and China loom just as large.

Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao is overseeing a global crypto empire with global problems.

Photo: Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Binance, the largest global crypto exchange, has been hit by a raft of regulatory challenges worldwide that only seem to increase.

It's the biggest example of what worries regulators in crypto: unfettered investor access to a range of digital tokens finance officials have never heard of, without the traditional investor protections of regulated markets.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.


Keep Reading Show less
Nasdaq
A technology company reimagining global capital markets and economies.
Protocol | Policy

Facebook’s scandals have obliterated any goodwill left in Congress

Lawmakers were supposed to wade into questions about Big Data's effect on competition. Instead, their vitriol at Facebook was unending.

Image: Alexander Shatov/Unsplash

In the wake of last week's damning series of reports about Facebook, senators at a hearing that was initially supposed to be about competition instead unleashed their ire on the firm, comparing it to Big Tobacco, suggesting it lied to Congress and all but accusing the social network of profiting off teens' anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

The bipartisan parade of fury on a politically salient issue lasted hours on Tuesday. Senators focused particularly on a Wall Street Journal report about the company's careful research into the corrosive effect of Instagram on young users' mental health. But the show, coming during a hearing that was supposed to examine the impact of Big Data on competition, was also the latest evidence that Congress' periodic fits of anger at tech companies and the way Facebook obsessively deflects can create a loop that gets in the way of what Washington actually wants to do.

Keep Reading Show less
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.

How tech is inventing better ways to read the internet

The market for read-later apps is heating up again, and the apps are much smarter this time.

The reading experience of the internet sucks. But some startups are trying to fix it.

Illustration: cihanterlan/Getty Images and Protocol

The internet, as a reading experience, is mostly terrible. The heavy pages riddled with ads and trackers, the unexpected pop-ups, the bespoke designs that in too many places end up broken. Over the years, many have tried to fix this problem — Google with AMP, Facebook with Instant Articles — and none have succeeded. It can often feel like things just keep getting worse.

Ben Springwater certainly felt like things were getting worse. In 2016, he was working at Nextdoor, lamenting with one of his colleagues, Rob Mackenzie, that reading on the internet was so complicated. The reading experience was part of the problem, but so was the internet's unlimited supply of stuff. "It completely boggles the mind that so much of this stuff is really excellent, this life-changing stuff we could read," Springwater said. But there's only so much time in the day. "So we have filters: We go to Twitter, we check the headlines or what comes into our inbox. But those decisions for most of us are really suboptimal, relative to the potential of what we could be reading."

Keep Reading Show less
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.

Protocol | Policy

New report shows kids see COVID-19 misinfo on TikTok in minutes

A new report finds that kids as young as 9 are being fed COVID-19 misinformation on TikTok, whether they engage with the videos or not.

NewsGuard researchers asked nine kids to create new TikTok accounts and record their experiences on the app.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

TikTok is pushing COVID-19 misinformation to children and teens within minutes of creating a new account, whether they actively engage with videos on the platform or not, a new report has found.

The report, published Wednesday by the media rating firm NewsGuard, raises questions not only about how effectively TikTok is enforcing its medical misinformation policies, but also about how its own recommendation algorithms are actively undermining those policies.

Keep Reading Show less
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.

Latest Stories