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.

Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

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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.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

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Gaurav Kataria
Group Product Manager, Trello at Atlassian
Protocol | Workplace

Adobe wants a more authentic NFT world

Adobe's Content Credentials feature will allow Creative Cloud subscribers to attach edit-tracking information to Photoshop files. The goal is to create a more trustworthy NFT market and digital landscape.

Adobe's Content Credentials will allow users to attach their identities to an image

Image: Adobe

Remember the viral, fake photo of Kurt Cobain and Biggie Smalls that duped and delighted the internet in 2017? Doctored images manipulate people and erode trust and we're not great at spotting them. The entire point of the emerging NFT art market is to create valuable and scarce digital files and when there isn't an easy way to check for an image's origin and edits, there's a problem. What if someone steals an NFT creator's image and pawns it off as their own? As a hub for all kinds of multimedia, Adobe feels a responsibility to combat misinformation and provide a safe space for NFT creators. That's why it's rolling out Content Credentials, a record that can be attached to a Photoshop file of a creator's identity and includes any edits they made.

Users can connect their social media addresses and crypto wallet addresses to images in Photoshop. This further proves the image creator's identity, but it's also helpful in determining the creators of NFTs. Adobe has partnered with NFT marketplaces KnownOrigin, OpenSea, Rarible and SuperRare in this effort. "Today there's not a way to know that the NFT you're buying was actually created by a true creator," said Adobe General Counsel Dana Rao. "We're allowing the creator to show their identity and attach it to the image."

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Protocol | China

Why another Chinese lesbian dating app just shut down

With neither political support nor a profitable business model, lesbian dating apps are finding it hard to survive in China.

Operating a dating app for LGBTQ+ communities in China is like walking a tightrope.

Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

When Lesdo, a Chinese dating app designed for lesbian women, announced it was closing down, it didn't come as a surprise to the LGBTQ+ community.

It's unclear what directly caused this decision. 2021 hasn't been kind to China's queer communities; WeChat has deactivated queer groups' public accounts and Beijing has pressured charity organizations not to work with queer activists.

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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.

The Oura Ring was a sleep-tracking hit. Can the next one be even more?

Oura wants to be a media company, an activity tracker and even a way to know you're sick before you feel sick.

Over the last few years, the Oura Ring has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch.

Photo: Oura

Oura CEO Harpreet Rai swears he didn't know Kim Kardashian was a fan. He was as surprised as anyone when she started posting screenshots from the Oura app to her Instagram story, and got into a sleep battle with fellow Oura user Gwyneth Paltrow. Or when Jennifer Aniston revealed that Jimmy Kimmel got her hooked on Oura … and how her ring fell off in a salad. "I am addicted to it," Aniston said, "and it's ruining my life" by shaming her about her lack of sleep. "I think we're definitely seeing traction outside of tech," Rai said. "Which is cool."

Over the last couple of years, Oura's ring (imaginatively named the Oura Ring) has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch. The company started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but really started to find traction with its second-generation model in 2018. It's not exactly a mainstream device — Oura said it has sold more than 500,000 rings, up from 150,000 in March 2020 but still not exactly Apple Watch levels — but it has reached some of the most successful, influential and probably sleep-deprived people in the industry. Jack Dorsey is a professed fan, as is Marc Benioff.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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