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Google wants to track your baby's heart rate

Plus, Apple wants to save you from shark attacks — and cancer; Amazon plans a VR mirror; and Microsoft wants in on the 3D-printing game in 2020, for some reason.

A baby sleeping in a crib

Google's new patent envisions using a Nest camera as a supercharged baby monitor that could alert parents when their baby's heart rate spikes.

Photo: Moment/Getty Images

The world might seem crazy these days, but I'm not sure it can hold a candle to some of the ideas coming out of the engineering departments of the big U.S. tech companies. Apple is trying to save our lives from shark attacks and cancer; Amazon wants us to try on clothes in a mirror that would rival the Evil Queen's in "Snow White"; and Microsoft wants in on the 3D-printing game in 2020, for some reason.

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

Solving arguments without leaving your text messages

One of the greatest use cases for smartphones has been finding the answer to any question whenever you need it; winning arguments has never been easier. Google apparently has been thinking about how that extends to digital conversations, too. A new patent from Google suggests that the company wants assistants in its messaging apps. The idea is that two people having a conversation could call on a bot to search for things without having to leave the chat. Much like Facebook tried to do with its M Messenger bot, Google's assistant could search for things like restaurant or holiday plans, but it could also just execute straight-up Google searches to prove someone else wrong, like this amazing diagram suggests:

Diagram of two people chatting on a phone from the patent

System and method for enabling an advertisement to follow the user to additional web pages

This is a patent about tracking people around the web, and I'm just impressed that it doesn't mention the word "cookie" once. I'm just impressed.

Tracking your baby's heartbeat

The over-surveilled life is starting earlier and earlier for kids these days — sometimes before birth. Google's new patent envisions using a Nest camera as a supercharged baby monitor, where it could alert parents when their baby is stirring, and even tell them what their baby's heart rate is and if it's spiking. It's not the first time computer vision systems have been used to detect a heartbeat; Microsoft's Xbox Kinect cameras have been able to do that for years. But using it to track a sleeping baby's vitals would both likely be a boon to parents and a wonderful privacy conundrum for the future. Insurance companies are giving out Apple Watches to track people's health today; imagine a future where they want sensors to see how well you're sleeping each night.

Put your phone down, you don't need to read that right now

Everyone has felt (or just plain given into) the temptation to check notifications on their phone while driving. Google's new patent suggests that a virtual assistant could be your co-pilot, scanning your car or your phone's notifications as they come in to gauge whether they're really worth bugging you about. The driver would be able to chat with the assistant to respond to notifications, and discuss notifications the bot didn't understand or missed, all without having to look away from the road.

Measuring dry eye for smart contact lenses

Verily might not be working on smart contact lenses anymore, but that hasn't stopped it from applying for patents for its work. In this patent, it envisions a system in a contact lens that could measure the hydration levels of the lens and the eyeball it's sitting on top of. I've never chosen to wear contacts over glasses for this exact reason: The idea of a dry disc literally scratching at my eyelid while I'm just trying to see things is beyond tortuous. Hopefully someone can make use of this patent in the future, though, and perhaps I'll think about swapping out the Coke-bottle frames for something less visible.

Amazon

Sportscast-style stats for video games

Amazon purchased Twitch, the preeminent video game spectating site in 2014, around the time that esports started to explode in popularity and millions of rapt fans began tuning in to games. This patent outlines a system of identifying what's going on in a game and overlaying statistics and other information on the feed for the fans watching along. For anyone who's watched pretty much any sport ever, the vibe will look familiar: stats on the players (or at least their characters' avatars), what equipment they're using, etc. Hopefully they don't figure out how to digitally re-create Joe Buck or Troy Aikman, though.

Drones that can fly any which way

One big problem with most drones is that, as this patent suggests, they're "typically designed for either agility or efficiency, but not both." Most drones have four degrees of freedom (pitch, yaw, roll and heave, for you aviation nerds), but if you want those other two degrees (surge and sway, that is), you have to create something that has more than four sets of propellers along the same plane. Amazon's patent fixes that with some wild drone designs: propellors facing in all directions, and one in the center of the machine, allowing it to travel in any direction with the same level of accuracy and power. Drones that are less likely to sway or go off-course could be super useful as the company explores drone deliveries, but the patent also suggests these many-fanned drones would have value in warehouses, packaging facilities, libraries, stores and even museums.

Mirrors showing you what you want to see

No, this isn't an '80s sci-fi movie or the evil queen's mirror from "Snow White." Amazon has a patent this week that suggests it's working on what it calls a "blended reality" system that could overlay digital images onto a real-world camera feed and a mirror. The result could be pretending that you're on a sunny beach when you are actually stuck in your fifth-floor walkup studio apartment in Queens like I have been for a month, just for example. It could also be used for something closer to Amazon's core business: shopping. The patent suggests using the smart mirror to virtually try on clothes, which, if the AI is accurate enough, could save a lot on shipping costs — though perhaps not less than everyone in the world having to buy an internet-connected floor-length mirror.

Apple

Avoiding shark attacks

At this point, everyone knows that the Apple Watch can track your runs or how often you're standing. But what about sharks? Apparently that's something that's keeping Apple engineers up at night. This patent outlines a wearable, which just happens to be shaped like the Apple Watch in the diagrams, that has sensors to monitor the world around the wearer, and also pull in data from pertinent sources. If you're swimming at the beach, it would display information about the pH level of the water, local rip tides, or … "a warning of dangerous predators such as sharks are in the area." Just when you thought it was safe to set your watch to track a swim and get back in the water.

A serious push into health care

This seems like quite a hard left turn for Apple. The company has dabbled in health care products, such as getting the EKG monitor on its Apple Watch accepted by the FDA, but this patent outlines something approaching clinical healthcare technology. The patent may have been acquired by Apple, as it doesn't appear to have been authored by Apple engineers, and it outlines a system for detecting and treating cancerous lesions. Perhaps, like so many other big tech companies, Apple is getting serious about pushing into health care, and if so, this seems like a surprisingly bold step in that direction.

Helping you use your iPhone when you have gloves on

Using your smartphone when you're wearing gloves is impossible, unless you have those dedicated smartphone-specific gloves, which are easy to lose and not usually that warm. Apple is trying to help those of us who live in cold climates out. This patent suggests taking in larger inputs onto a touchscreen and determining whether they're accidental touches, or if you're touching the screen with something less conductive or accurate than a human finger. If this works, it could be a godsend to our appendages.

Facebook

Hanging out on Instagram

We can't really see any of our friends these days, so put this patent in the pile of things you'll remember to do when life returns to normal. Instagram appears to be working on a way to post Instagram Stories as groups — if you're hanging out with your friends, you can make a Story, tag all of them in it, and then they all can add to the Story you've created. Perfect for weddings and concerts and parties. It would cut down on duplicative Insta stories, and might encourage people to share more when they know all their friends will see it. When they can see their friends again, that is.

Microsoft

A virtual assistant that actually works like you want it to

Just about every virtual assistant out there struggles to handle complicated commands, but Microsoft is thinking about how to make them do things that are a little more useful than just telling you the weather or turning off a light. The patent outlines an "all-in-one computing device" that users can speak to, and ask it commands it can learn from. One example it suggests would require facial recognition and a deep understanding of context: a person calls on the computer and says, "Move my game from the den to this TV and pause it." The system would know she was playing a video game in the den, and pause it, and switch the stream over to the TV in the room she's just entered. It could then learn to do that automatically next time. It seems one step closer to the smart homes you see in sci-fi movies … and the Disney channel.

Making 3D prints actually printable

Microsoft is apparently interested in the rather niche market of 3D printer services. There are companies out there, like Shapeways, where customers can choose or upload their own 3D designs that the company then prints and mails to them, so they don't have to deal with the hassle of actually owning a 3D printer. Where Microsoft comes in, as the patent sees it, is that "3D models most often need to be designed to be 3D printed, and that expertise is beyond the average customer." Harsh, but probably true. The patent suggests software that can determine whether customers' designs can physically be printed, and if not, make suggestions for how to fix them.


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A futuristic VR controller

This is clearly a huge trend. In the two months we've been tracking these patents, there have been a ton about making VR controllers that mimic real-world sensations. This one from Microsoft, however, looks a little more fleshed out: It suggests a gnarly joystick-hand harness combo where each finger could be vibrated separately to give the sense of something being in the wearer's hand. The joystick part could be operated by a single finger to help the user navigate around the virtual world quickly (it's still pretty hard to replicate moving around in VR if you're not on a treadmill) or to perform other actions like shooting bad guys in a game. Now someone just needs to make some VR games that lots of people actually want to play.

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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