Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

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

Making Zoom meetings a little nicer

Even after nearly a year at home, some people have still not figured out the best way to set up their digital meetings. They're either too close to the camera or so far away they might as well not be there. Part of the problem lies in the cameras they have available, as many webcams are too wide-angled: No one needs to see what's 8 feet to either side of you on a Zoom call. But this recent Google patent might help; it involves the meeting platform being able to gauge how far you are from the camera (by measuring the proportions of your face) and zooming in on you when you're speaking, hopefully making everyone look a little more uniform. The patent also included this wonderful diagram to explain it, which appears to have been made in Microsoft Paint:

Amazon

Reusing Amazon boxes

Everyone is shopping online far more than ever before, meaning ever-more cardboard boxes are littering our homes and recycling facilities. Amazon's new patent aims to help rectify this by creating a system that allows customers to easily reuse boxes that products come in. It's trying to remove all the steps usually found in shipping — such as weighing your package, getting a price to ship and bringing the package to a shipping facility — and replacing them with software. You'd scan the box you have and what you're trying to send, and Amazon's app would recognize what it is and estimate how much it'll cost to ship. You then pack it up and a courier comes to retrieve it. Now your friends and loved ones will never be without their Bad Monkeys.



Choosing music based on BPM

If you're making a playlist to work out — or perhaps you're a spin class instructor looking for songs with specific tempos — this idea might be for you. Amazon's patent suggests creating a way to search music to download based on songs' beats per minute. If you want a mix of slow songs to cool down with and uptempo ones to rock out, this could be useful (and is similar to something Pandora offers today). Or if you want a playlist that includes the fastest music ever to help you write faster, this could help. Or maybe that's just me.

Apple

Auto-returning attachments

Have you ever been sent a PDF that you're supposed to download, print, sign, rescan and email back, and then you lost the file in your downloads, opened up an old version and had to hunt down for the right one before you sent it back? Maybe you're not as scatterbrained as me, but Apple's new idea for a system that allows you to just interact with an attachment that needs to be sent back to your correspondent without leaving the email program sounds like a dream. A better dream, though, would probably be to get rid of random attachments altogether.

Seat belts that move based on where you sit

If you've ever been the third person on a road trip and wanted to sit in the middle seat in the back, you've probably gotten stuck with a seatbelt that's a bit too small; the middle seat isn't quite as large as the other two. This new design from Apple would essentially recognize where you sit in the backseat and move the entire seat belt machinery along so that you would be comfortably strapped in wherever you're sitting. It would also automatically reveal the buckle, so you wouldn't have to spend time hunting for where it's gone. This all sounds like it would make losing out when someone calls "shotgun" a little more bearable.

Cases for your AirPods, stylus and iPhone

Apple hasn't been without Jony Ive for very long, but it seems it's going ham on truly zany design concepts in his absence. In this patent, Apple explores various ways to combine a holder for AirPods and a stylus into a folio-style case for an iPhone that could also charge your peripherals and potentially display messages on the exterior. If Apple could pull this off in a way that didn't lead to a giant lumpy mess in my pocket, I'd potentially be interested, but the drawings in the patent are … less than promising:

Facebook

Animating digital avatars with VR headsets

Facebook is still pushing hard to make interacting in VR the future of … interacting … and this patent might help things feel a bit more natural. It suggests using cameras mounted on a VR headset pointed back at you to map real human facial expressions onto your digital avatar. Most VR programs with avatars either have faces that don't move when you're speaking or they just flap their mouths wildly; a system like this could make talking to someone dressed as a wizard or an elf or whatever else they've chosen to represent themselves online feel at least a little more normal.

Microsoft

Cortana for your car

Microsoft is apparently looking into application-specific virtual assistants, such as one designed for use in a car. It's a Car-tana, if you will. The assistant would be designed to provide specific insights about driving and how you could be saving money. That would include things like preemptively letting you know when a part might need servicing, how many miles it's been since you last fueled up or that your electric car's charge is low and chargers are nearby. It could announce these things over the car's stereo system, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road.

Computer-generated songs

Who needs musicians? Microsoft's new patent seems to want to make them obsolete. It suggests a system that can take an input, like a picture or some text, and turn it into a song. It can identify elements in the input, like the sentiment of the words or aspects of the image (like if people are outside or in a crowd) and build a melody and lyrics off of that. Sadly, as this is just a written document, there are no examples of this concept's potential output, if Microsoft has even built something like this. But if it does prove to be possible, I've got the perfect robot to perform this system's songs.

Turning speech into images

Microsoft is really on the art-generating bandwagon this week. This patent outlines a similar idea to the last one, envisioning a system that can take what someone is saying and turn it into images. The system could even string together generated images into a sort-of picture book: You could narrate a day you've had to the AI, and it generates something like a series of Instagram Stories based on what you say to it. Though it'd probably just be easier to actually take photos of what happened, honestly.

Workplace

Asana’s productivity expert wants you to ditch the 30-minute meeting

Professional organizer Joshua Zerkel says, sometimes you just need to stop working.

Joshua Zerkel is one of the first Certified Professional Organizers through the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals.

Photo: Asana

When he entered the workforce, Joshua Zerkel didn’t know that productivity consultants were a thing. He was always the organized kid, alphabetizing his comic books and grouping his toys by category (G.I. Joes could never mix with Transformers). But his connection to productivity really clicked when he started working in web design. He quickly became the go-to employee for tips on staying focused.

“There are a lot of great talents that designers have, but one of them is typically not project organization and time management,” Zerkel joked.

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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.

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A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

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Want to break into DevRel? Now's your moment.

The developer relations advocate job market is on fire right now. Here's why.

One of the hottest roles in tech right now is also one of the least understood.

Photo: Charday Penn via Getty

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Every DevRel advocate and team leader I’ve talked with in the last week was quick to stress that in their opinion, not everyone in tech — especially people working for software-adjacent companies (like banks) — actually understands what DevRel teams do. So, a quick refresher: DevRel teams are not marketers. They are not PR. They are communicators, usually with engineering and software backgrounds, who act as the conduit for feedback between the developers who use software and the engineers who make it. And while DevRel advocates used to spend most of their time on the road, traveling to conferences and hackathons to talk about their product and get developer feedback, in the last year most of them have become more like influencers, chatting up developers on Twitch livestreams and getting micro-famous on TikTok.

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Anna Kramer

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Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

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Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

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David Pierce

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Apple's new payments tech won't kill Square

It could be used in place of the Square dongle, but it's far short of a full-fledged payments service.

The Apple system would reportedly only handle contactless payments.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Apple is preparing a product to enable merchants to accept contactless payments via iPhones without additional hardware, according to Bloomberg.

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Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

China

Why does China's '996' overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu covers China's tech industry.

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