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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.

App store laws, Microsoft AR and Square buys Tidal

Welcome to this weekend's Source Code podcast.

Cole Burston/Bloomberg

This week on the Source Code podcast: First, an update on Google's user-tracking change. Then, Ben Pimentel joins the show to discuss Square buying Tidal, and what it means for the fintech and music worlds. Later, Emily Birnbaum explains the bill moving through the Arizona legislature that has Google and Apple worried about the future of app stores. And finally, Janko Roettgers discusses Microsoft Mesh, the state of AR and VR headsets, and when we're all going to be doing meetings as holograms.

For more on the topics in this episode:

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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.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
People

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

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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.

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.

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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.

Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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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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