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.

Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

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Issie Lapowsky

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.

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Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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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.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

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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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