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Google wants to be your babysitter

Plus, a way to hide what you're doing on your computer, VR you can feel, robots you can high-five and other patents from big tech.

Google's automatic babysitter patent

If this Google patent comes true, your virtual assistant could also watch your kids while you're out.

Image: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

It's another week in quarantine, and while every day might feel the same as the last, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office keeps churning out new patents that definitely feel unique. Google can be your babysitter! Apple wants to make cars look awesome again! Facebook made robots with hands! And Microsoft wants to make sure you're still awake! It's an exciting time for the future of tech, even if the present is driving you a bit stir-crazy.

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

Google can be your babysitter

Not that many of us are leaving home much, but in that distant future when the world returns to normal, Google wants to be in charge of looking after your kids. Its vision for the future relies on sensing how many people are in a room, who they are, and controlling lots of internet-connected devices around the house. The virtual assistant in charge would be able to remotely lock doors or disable electrical sockets to keep small kids safe. It'll likely leave them feeling like Dave Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey" — including when their house has doors that Google Assistant won't open.

Communicating through light

Google is apparently looking into using light — rather than radio waves — to send information from one smart device to another. This idea, often referred to as "Li-Fi," has been bandied around for years: The concept is basically that light emitters could transmit a lot of data far more accurately in a confined area than traditional Wi-Fi. As the patent suggests, this could be useful for sharing information you only want shared in one room (as light can't pass through walls or other opaque objects), like encryption keys. Nobody's yet been able to commercialize this concept; sounds like a good moonshot to me.

Amazon

The one button missing from all internet ads

If you've ever bought anything that's advertised online, you've likely had the mildly frustrating problem of continuing to see ads for it all over the web. There have been many times where I've wished I could click on an ad and tell Google/Amazon/random DTC brand, "I already bought this product, please show me something else." (Facebook used to have an option like this, but inexplicably got rid of it.) It seems that Amazon is working on something similar, where you could tell advertisers that you already have a product or don't want to see any more ads for it. Now, if they could only figure out a way to do the same thing for subway ads.

Delivery drones with winches

Right now, Amazon's main delivery drone design requires the drone to land, plop down the package, and take off again before you can pick up what you ordered. It's efficient, but also a bit dangerous, as you can't be anywhere near the drone until it's safely back in the sky. Other companies, like Alphabet's Wing, use a winch system to lower the package down to you while the drone hovers overhead. It seems like Amazon is looking into doing something similar with its drones — in this case a tether system that would allow the drone to stay airborne while it lowered a package to you. Now there's no risk of ending up like Enrique Iglesias.

Apple

Built-in privacy screens

Sometimes you really don't want other people peeping at your laptop screen. You can buy one of those privacy filters, but then you're sort of broadcasting that there's something worth snooping at on your screen. Apple may have a solution in the works: A patent awarded this week describes a polarized liquid-crystal layer in a laptop display that could be switched on and off to give you privacy when you need it, without anyone necessarily realizing you're looking at something important.

Gull-wing doors

I don't know if it's because I recently rewatched the "Back to the Future" trilogy, but I'm extremely excited for gull-wing doors to make a comeback. Apple's new patent outlines a hinge mechanism for doors on a vehicle that can open upward while not actually requiring a lot of space around the vehicle to open. Doors like these could be great for autonomous vehicles (which Apple is working on, in some capacity), making it easy for people and things to get into vehicles without doors in the way. It would also make it easier to get more cars into smaller parking spots, presumably. Add on a Mr. Fusion reactor and a flux capacitor, and you've got yourself a pretty rad time machine, too. I wonder when Apple will file a patent for that.

Facebook

Robots you can high-five

This patent is interesting for a few reasons: It shows that Facebook is doing fundamental research in robotics, something far outside its current business model, and it shows how small robots could be linked together to perform tasks they couldn't do on their own. That sounds like the start of something like Voltron, which I'm very here for. But the most interesting thing about this patent to me — and it may just be a crude representation in the drawings — is that Facebook gave the robots in this patent arms with little hands on top. I'm pretty sure they're supposed to represent grippers, based on what the patent says, but I love the idea of just walking up to a robot, giving it a solid high-five, and carrying on. What better use for robots could there be?

VR suits

If you've been watching "Upload," you'll know that in the future, we'll apparently be able to get intimate with deceased lovers whose consciousnesses now live in the cloud through tactile VR suits. I'm not sure if that's the eventuality Facebook is preparing for with this new patent, but it's definitely a possibility. It outlines a set of haptic sensors that could be worn as sleeves or other garments that could re-create a sense of touch when interacting with a virtual world.

Microsoft

Drowsiness detector

If you've made it this far through this week's list, you probably won't have any need for this patent. Microsoft is apparently looking at developing a system that could detect when you're starting to feel sleepy. The new patent describes using heart rate and brain activity sensors to determine when someone's getting drowsy. The sensors could be contained in a wearable tethered to a user's phone. For example, the sensors might pick up that someone's starting to get drowsy while they're driving, and their phone would ping them to suggest they pull over and find a hotel. If you've ever been on a long road trip and had to drive through the night, this could be a (literal) lifesaver.

Earbuds that actually block out the world

Most noise-canceling earbuds will come with a few different sizes of rubber tips so they can fit as securely in your ear canal as possible, but they always seem to find a way to wriggle loose, breaking the seal and letting some of the world's sounds in. Microsoft's new earbud idea, which looks surprisingly like an AirPod, has an adjustable membrane around the earbud tip, so a person could find the exact right size for their ear and lock the membrane in on that shape. Hopefully whatever design Microsoft lands on is a little smaller than the wearable Pogs it recently released.

People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

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Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
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Bad news for Big Tech: Bipartisan agreement on antitrust reform

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During the first House antitrust hearing of the new Congress, Democratic chairman David Cicilline and Republican ranking member Ken Buck made it clear they intend to forge ahead with a series of bipartisan reform efforts that could cut into the power of the largest technology companies.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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.

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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.

Power

Cord cutting in 2020: Pay TV industry lost 5.5 million subscribers

Subscriber defections slowed toward the end of the year, but there's no end to cord cutting in sight.

The pay TV industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift.

Photo: Nicolas J Leclercq/Unsplash

The five biggest pay TV providers lost a combined 5.5 million subscribers in 2020, narrowly staying below the 5.8 million subscribers the companies collectively lost in 2019. Subscriber losses slowed a bit toward the end of the year, but pandemic-related cutbacks still hit the industry hard — and may have led to hundreds of thousands additional cancellations if not for industry-wide billing relief efforts.

The industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift, with pay TV subscribers switching from traditional operators like Comcast and AT&T to tech companies like Google and Hulu and their respective pay TV services. However, a closer look at pay TV trends suggests that these gains may be temporary, as so-called skinny bundles fall out of favor with consumers once operators are forced to increase their price tags to make up for ever-increasing network licensing costs.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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