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Power

Microsoft wants to record your emotions

Facebook IoT controllers, Apple triangle tablets, Amazon tracking you in IRL and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants to record your emotions

Your memories in AR.

Image: Microsoft/USPTO

Welcome to a special Monday edition of the Big Tech patent roundup! Hopefully you're reading this while waiting for your grill to heat up or socially distancing yourself at the beach. If not, go outside and enjoy the day off, then come back and learn about what Big Tech has in store for our future. Up this week, safer noise-canceling headphones, AR maps, flexible tablets and emotion-recording AR glasses. Maybe just stay at the beach, honestly.

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

Staying safe with noise-canceling headphones

If you've ever worn a pair of noise-canceling headphones while out in the world, you'll know how easy it is to get lost in the music and … almost get hit by a truck while crossing the road. Google's new patent aims to make wearing headphones a little safer. The concept in the patent is to have sensors on the outside of headphones that can help glean what you're doing while wearing them: If you're out running in a busy downtown area with lots of traffic, the headphones could automatically switch between noise-canceling and a transparency mode so you're not hit with an unexpected surprise.

Identifying songs

The concept of using software to figure out what song is playing isn't new — even Google's own ability to listen to the world around a smartphone and pick up songs playing has been around for a couple years — but I have to give props to the patent artist here for the song they chose to illustrate this idea. If you somehow haven't heard "Sandstorm" by Darude, you must listen to it right now.

Amazon

Tracking the stores you go to

Sites like Amazon already track you around the web to show you ads and see where else you're shopping, but what if they did that in real life? A new patent from the retailer explores how devices could be used to track the movements of potential customers to greet them when they show up at a store, based on how they're traveling. This could be useful for Amazon's subsidiary Whole Foods, which offers grocery pickups (which are especially useful during this pandemic), but could also be used to offer targeted discounts or messages to shoppers as they show up to shop in the store.

Sending Ring videos to the cops

Ring's ties to law enforcement have been well-documented at this point, but this new concept seems to close the loop between doorbell owners and the cops. Amazon's patent is for a function in the Ring app where anyone picked up by a Ring doorbell could be recorded and have that video sent by the owner to the police with one button, or even call the cops right from the app. How convenient! Also: If someone who looks like this stick figure ever tried to rob your house, I wouldn't worry too much.

Apple

Fabric hardware and 'Power Glove'

Apple has had a few patents recently around interweaving electric circuitry into fabrics, and this week it was awarded two more. One of them deals with how to actually put circuits into individual fabrics, and the other is something that reminds me of the single greatest gaming peripheral of all time: the Power Glove. It's basically a mesh fabric glove that could be used to control things like VR in a way that would feel more natural than the controls on the market today. I can't wait to use it to control a 2D-racing game with a pair Wayfarers on.

Pyramid tablets

This is a pretty neat idea from Apple, for a device with a wraparound, flexible display that can be folded into any shape you want. This is an objectively useful concept, and I could see folding up a tablet or phone so it can prop itself up for video calls or for use as a laptop, and then unfolding it to read a book. But with one of the concepts in the patent, for the tablet folded into a triangular prism, I couldn't help but think of "The Office." Ten years ago, the show parodied Apple's iPad with The Pyramid, a triangular-shaped tablet that made very little sense, but is, after all, "the strongest shape ever constructed, a shape that fits all other shapes inside of it."

Augmented reality maps

Apple is trying hard to shed the early negative reactions people have had to its Maps program, recently adding in a ton of new features. It also seems it's trying to catch up with a feature that Google Maps has had for a while: augmented reality maps. This patent outlines overlaying directions onto the real world using an iPhone camera, where you could also search for locations from the AR function. Will this be the thing that gets Apple users to switch back from using Google Maps? Perhaps it'll take off when Apple does eventually release some sort of AR glasses that it's been working on for so long.

Facebook

Controlling IoT devices through Facebook

Can you imagine a world where you give Facebook access to the cameras, lights and other smart devices in your home? Facebook can. Its new patent explores what it would be like for the social network to have a function for controlling IoT devices. There could be some value in using a social network's graph to connect people together to see if they know each other and allow them to share IoT permissions via a social network, which the patent discusses, but it still seems like a stretch for Facebook to be the place where you control your home.

Microsoft

Recording the world, based on your emotions

This feels right out of "Black Mirror." This new Microsoft patent suggests using sensors to glean the emotional state of someone wearing AR glasses and using that to trigger video recording. This could have some very lovely outcomes — like parents managing to capture their baby's first steps before they could possibly reach for a phone — but it also opens up some more troubling possibilities, assuming it could even work. The patent outlines some other moods that could trigger video recording, including "focused, engaged, distracted, bored, sleepy, confused or frustrated." It's not too much of a stretch to see this being used to monitor students' or employees' attention, or other situations where perhaps you don't exactly want someone recording — like the bathroom, perhaps.

Measuring soil with computers

Microsoft loves to talk about AI and big data in its commercials (especially if Common is in them), but it seems those ads are more than just bluster. This patent deals with precision agriculture, the concept of using computer-monitoring hardware and software to understand more about the land you're trying to farm, getting more out of the same amount of land. It outlines a soil-surveying device, with a radio antenna, that could connect to software to monitor things like soil moisture and electrical conductivity, both of which are important to tell you about the health of the land you're trying to farm. In the future, your farm could well be running Windows.

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.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

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Policy

Bad news for Big Tech: Bipartisan agreement on antitrust reform

Democrats and Republicans found common ground during the first House hearing on antitrust of the new Congress. Here's what that means for tech giants.

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee held their first hearing of the 117th Congress.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

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.

"We will work on a serious bipartisan basis to advance these reforms together," Cicilline said during his opening remarks Thursday.

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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.

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.

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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