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Microsoft wants to deliver to your car with drones

Robots digging cable lines, Facebook tracking IRL and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants to deliver to your car with drones

Seems practical.

Image: Microsoft/USPTO

Congratulations on making it to the end of another week that felt like a month. Hopefully you can now use this day to kick back, relax and enjoy reading about some of the zaniest patents that Big Tech was awarded this week. And perhaps because it's a holiday weekend, these companies really delivered, including: Microsoft setting up the most dramatic drone deliveries ever; Facebook using robots to dig tunnels for fiber cables; and Amazon wanting to repaint roads for self-driving cars.

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

Where the sidewalk ends

This isn't a patent about Shel Silverstein, unfortunately. Waymo wants to make sure its driverless vehicles know where the road ends and the sidewalk begins; the intent is to be able to differentiate between objects generally found on the side of a road that a car might need to worry about, like a crosswalk. And in another patent awarded this week, it wants to make sure that any anomalies its cars come across as they traverse the world, such as construction in a lane of road, can be shared with all other Waymo vehicles in the area. Like Waze, but for Waymo. Wayzemo.

Amazon

Machine-readable information on roadways

One way to make it easier to get self-driving cars on the road is to make the world easier for them to understand. Instead of making robots understand our road signs, we can make ones that only they can read. In the vision of Amazon's patent, that could mean machine-readable code painted onto roads next to lane markers. This could lead to cars having to store less information onboard about local road conditions, instead reading signs in the road that told them they were entering a low-speed zone or that a sharp curve is ahead. Pretty much like how we navigate areas we don't know, except without words and pictures.

Apple

Controlling autonomous vehicles with a wave of your hand

Driving is pretty fun, but it might be a lot more fun to pretend you're a Jedi controlling your vehicle with a wave of your hand. Perhaps that's what the team at Apple was thinking with this patent. The goal seems to be to give passengers in autonomous vehicles a way to interact with the vehicle in case they need to change something about their ride, and using hand gestures is more inclusive than voice or touch. And also it's pretty cool to put your hand up, gesture vaguely to the left, and have your robot car take you to the Starbucks you decided you needed on the way to see your folks.

Digital info overlaid on the world

As rumors of Apple's potential augmented-reality glasses heats up, the company's patents are certainly doing nothing to dampen the chatter. This patent outlines a system for improving the accuracy of information overlaid on the real world in an AR setting, such as a mobile device, or as the patent says, in a "semi-transparent head mounted display." There's few details on what this (apparently costly) headset Apple is working on will look like, but it does seem that the company's patents are now getting down into the minutiae of what building a solid AR system would look like.

Facebook

Using Facebook data to learn about customers in store

If you've ever wondered what your Facebook data might actually be used for, this patent might give you an idea. Facebook seems to be looking at ways to cross-reference its user base against radio beacons deployed into retail stores. So if you're a Facebook user and you've given Facebook the adequate permissions, a store with a beacon setup could see the demographic of every Facebook user (which is, in many countries, most people) who walks through their door. In the patent, the beacon could glean data like which customers are repeat visitors, how long they're in the store, their age, birthdays, loyalty status and other pieces of information that can be used to sell them more things.

A robot that lays fiber-optic cable

Facebook has been working on building its own fiber networks for a while now, but it seems the company is also interested in finding novel ways to actually build those networks. This patent outlines a robotic drill that can be remotely controlled to dig a small tunnel underground and lay cable behind it in one action. It would have sensors onboard to help it avoid difficult-to-break substances, like hard rocks, while it moves underground. I'd also like one of these to redo all the wiring in my apartment that's hanging in front of the walls because I don't trust myself to drill holes like this.

Microsoft

Delivering packages to moving cars via drones

This sounds more like something out of a "Fast & Furious" movie than something you'd see in real life, but Microsoft is apparently exploring the feasibility of delivering packages with autonomous drones while people sit in their cars. While there might be some benefit to delivering to your car in some situations — perhaps you want a pizza delivered while you're at the beach — I can't think of a lot of instances where whatever you're getting delivered you need while you're still in the car, as opposed to dropped near you in a field or something safer. Unless you've just heisted some jewels and are making a quick getaway, but still want to make sure you get that thing you were up all night bidding on eBay for.

Life events on a calendar

If you're anything like me, you have a very visual memory. I take a lot of photos, and invariably, I can't remember when I went somewhere or did something, but I did take a picture of it. Thanks to the magic of the cloud, I can usually fire up Apple or Google Photos and scroll back in time until I find what I was looking for, and then figure out when it was. Microsoft's new patent wants to make that a little easier, by ascribing life events to your calendar. So when you went on your big trip to Cancun over spring break three years ago, Microsoft would've flagged to you at the time asking if you wanted to add something like "Cancun Trip" and all the photos from while you were there to your calendar. You could then scroll back through that calendar and see exactly what you did when. It's like exporting your memory to the cloud.

Haptic VR gloves

It's like "Ready Player One," but more real. Microsoft has patented a set of wearable gloves that could provide a small sense of reality when playing VR games. The mechanized gloves would be filled with fluids that could contract the gloves to make touching virtual solid objects feel similar to real ones. The gloves could also vibrate to give a sense of haptic feedback in other ways. Imagine playing a baseball game where you could feel the weight of the bat in your hands and the buzz of the bat when you hit the ball. Hopefully future VR systems won't also be encoding the feeling of getting hit by a pitch, though.

Protocol | Policy

Senate infrastructure bill: Who’s winning and losing in tech?

The $1 trillion bill covers everything from cyber to electric vehicles. But who's best positioned to seize the opportunity?

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes $550 billion in new spending.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There's a little something — and in some cases, a lotta something — for everyone in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that's currently getting hammered out in the Senate.

The $1 trillion bill includes $550 billion in new spending, of which tens of billions of dollars will go toward broadband expansion, low-income internet subsidies, electric vehicle investments, charging stations, cybersecurity and more. The outpouring of federal funding gives anyone from telecom giants to device manufacturers a lot to like.

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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.

When the COVID-19 crisis crippled societies last year, the collective worldwide race for a cure among medical researchers put a spotlight on the immense power of big data analysis and how sharing among disparate agencies can save lives.

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James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Protocol | Workplace

Silicon Valley has a new recruitment strategy: The four-day workweek

Everything you need to know about how tech companies are beta testing the 32-hour week.

Since the onset of COVID-19, more companies have begun to explore shortened workweeks.

Photo: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

At software company Wildbit, most employees are logged off on Fridays. That's not going to change anytime soon.

To Natalie Nagele, the company's co-founder and CEO, a full five days of work doesn't necessarily mean the company will get more stuff done. She pointed to computer science professor Cal Newport's book, "Deep Work," which explains how a person's ability to complete meaningful work cuts off after just about four hours. That book, Nagele told Protocol, inspired the company to move to a four-day workweek back in 2017.

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Sarah Roach

Sarah Roach is a reporter and producer at Protocol (@sarahroach_) where she contributes to Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. She is a recent graduate of George Washington University, where she studied journalism and mass communication and criminal justice. She previously worked for two years as editor in chief of her school's independent newspaper, The GW Hatchet.

Power

The game industry comes back down to Earth after its pandemic boom

Game company earnings reports this week show a decline from last year's big profits.

The game industry is slowing down as it struggles to maintain last year's record growth.

Photo: Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The video game industry is finally slowing down. After a year of unprecedented and explosive growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic, big game publishers and hardware makers are starting to see profits dip from their 2020 highs and other signs of a return to normalcy.

This week alone, Sony and Nintendo both posted substantial drops in profit compared to this time a year ago, with Sony's operating income down more than 40% and Nintendo's down 17%. Grand Theft Auto maker Take-Two Interactive saw a dip in revenue and said its forecast for the rest of the fiscal year would not match last year's growth, while EA posted a revenue bump but an operating income decline of more than 43% compared to this time a year ago. Ubisoft, which reported earnings last month, saw its sales and bookings this past quarter drop by 14% and 21%, respectively, when compared to a year ago.

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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.

Allocations wants to make it easier to invest in startups as a group

Now valued at $100 million, it's emerging from stealth to challenge Carta and Assure in the SPV market.

Kingsley Advani, CEO of Allocations, wants to make it easier to form SPVs.

Photo: Allocations

Software is eating the world, including the venture industry. Carta and Assure have made it easier than ever for people to band together on deals. AngelList's venture arm debuted new ways to create rolling funds. But the latest startup to challenge the incumbents in the space is Allocations, a Miami-based startup that's making it easy to create and close special purpose vehicles, or SPVs, in hours.

"If you look at Pinduoduo and group shopping, SPVs are group investing," said Kingsley Advani, Allocations' founder and CEO. Instead of one investor having to cough up millions, multiple people can write smaller checks in an SPV and invest as a cohort. It's a trend that's taken off in 2021 as investors compete to get into hot startups.

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