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Google wants to connect everything you own to the internet

Surveilling older adults, connected helmets, wearables talking to doctors and other patents from Big Tech.

Google wants to connect everything you own to the internet

Make all the things smart!

Image: Google/USPTO

Hello and welcome back to the world of zany patents from Big Tech! While 2020 is still dragging on (I know it's 2021, but you can't tell me 2020 is over until I can go anywhere other than the grocery store), at least there are still great new patents to uncover. And there's some fascinating ones this week, including Facebook wanting to make clothes like real in games, Microsoft trying to make sports more inclusive and Google wanting to make it easier to spy on your parents. If that's something you want to do.

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

Surveilling older adults

People who have aging parents might find themselves checking in frequently to make sure Mom and Dad are OK, or even buying gadgets or products that make it a little easier to be self-sufficient. Google's solution, according to this patent, is a way to keep tabs on them remotely. Using smart sensors placed around the house, a system like Google Home could be set up to alert a third party about what's happening in the house. For example, the system can send an alert if it notices that nobody is moving around at specific times, and you can then decide whether to call or text to check in. Just be sure to ask your parents' permission first before you turn their home into a personal panopticon.

Making analog products digital

A few years ago, Google introduced Jacquard, its project for interweaving electronic sensors into fabrics. It's been used to add phone controls to denim jackets, bags and even shoes. It's a neat idea, but it requires you to buy new products that you might not actually want. With this patent, Google envisions bringing that same concept to any product you already own and making it smart. That could be things like touch sensors or tracking movement — perhaps you could just slap one of these on your parents instead of putting sensors all over their house.

Keeping your doctor in the loop

Alphabet's health research arm, Verily, is thinking about a future — which we might currently be living through — where people don't need to get to the doctor to be diagnosed. This patent envisions a wearable that can constantly track your heart (it's unclear how much of a drain this would be on a small wearable battery), and identify any potential issues by consulting databases online, like if your data suggests that you might be having an arrhythmia. While there's a few wearables on the market that can do something like this right now, this patent imagines automatically sharing that data with your doctor, presumably so they could review the data, or potentially algorithmically warn you and your doctor that an emergency situation is underway. Hopefully it doesn't call your doctor if you suck at golf, though.

Amazon

Autonomous avoiding

This one is conceptually quite straightforward, but important nonetheless when you're thinking about a phalanx of delivery drones flying around on their own. The patent outlines a laser range-finding system mounted on drone rotors that can help the drones "see" what's around them so they could shift their routes to avoid it. But for many in the drone industry, it's not really the tech that's holding back autonomous deliveries — it's humans.

Apple

Detecting traffic wardens

Rather like with autonomous delivery drones, it's good to know that Apple is thinking about what obstacles its autonomous vehicles might encounter. In this patent, it's specifically thinking about what to do when a car sees something that appears to be someone guiding traffic, and how to react to various hand signals they might make. This makes me think about a future where I could just carry a stop sign around with me and become the king of robot cars, directing them to follow my every whim.

Facebook

Simulating clothing

If you've ever played a video game where someone is wearing clothes (which is … most of them??), you've probably noticed that they don't exactly fall like the ones you wear IRL. I think my favorite example is uniforms in sports games; the systems usually recognize now that cloth stretches as people move, but then instead of just stretching the fabric, they'll stretch out the letters in players' names, making it look like the jerseys are made of elastic. Facebook's patent outlines a system that uses a machine learning-based "cloth simulator" to more realistically mimic how physics affects the wrinkles in simulated clothes. With Facebook's deep push into VR, this could be one of the things that helps the platform feel less like an awkward immersive video game and more like real life, represented in a headset.

Microsoft

An automatic travel diary

When I was growing up, my mom used to make me write a diary anytime we went on vacation. It was a noble endeavor, but amazingly, my child brain was more interested in actually being on vacation than writing about it later. Regardless of what that might have meant from my chosen career, my adult brain is still a fan of this idea. The patent suggests a system that can auto-generate a travel diary based on your calls, texts, photos, location and other data from your phone. You could then share your digital diary with anyone you might want to make jealous — though you should probably consider whether giving over that much data to a system like this is worth the hate-likes.

Bringing sports to visually-impaired people

If this could work, this could be a really neat way to make sports somewhat more inclusive. This patent envisions using sensors to help visually impaired people play sports. The example it gives includes something that looks a lot like an Xbox Kinect sensor built into a batting helmet. In the example, the helmet could provide a signal to the wearer that a pitch is incoming and it's time to swing. Alerts could be vibrations, sounds or other sensory flags. And although it might look odd to wear a batting helmet outside of the baseball diamond, the patent also envisions a system for other aspects of daily life, such as alerting the wearer when it's safe to cross the road.


Icebreakers on social media

If you've had to do any team-building exercises over Zoom during this pandemic, you've probably come across a few sessions of icebreaker questions. Maybe you've had to share what you'd take from your house in a fire, or what brands you unquestionably love. It's a sure-fire way to get people chatting. In this patent, Microsoft is envisioning bringing that energy into the rest of your life, whether on conversations you're having on social media, or even phone calls you're receiving. Pertinent information about friends, colleagues or new connections could be displayed next to their names on social media or when they're calling you, offering something to talk about other than work or the weather, like which marathons they've run or which '90s rock band they're still seeing live.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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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.

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