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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.

Protocol | China

China's culture wars, now playing on Bilibili

The streaming site was once a quirky place for young men. Now it's nationalistic and misogynist, and women have had enough.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - AUGUST 02: A cosplayer performs at Bilibili stand during the 2020 China Digital Entertainment Expo & Conference (ChinaJoy) at Shanghai New International Expo Center on August 2, 2020 in Shanghai, China.

VCG / Contributor via Getty Images

At first glance, Nasdaq-listed Bilibili is going gangbusters. The Beijing-based site is set for a $2 billion secondary listing in Hong Kong, it's become one of China's most popular video-sharing platforms, and it's making big moves into other areas like gaming. But it's in trouble back home: Tens of thousands of female netizens are boycotting and sanctioning the service over what they say is out-of-control misogyny. Bilibili is becoming a case study in what can go wrong when a platform moves from the fringes to the mainstream.

The backlash started in late January. Once a hub for China's Gen Z and a safe haven for ACG (Anime, Comic and Games) fans, Bilibili made the fateful decision to promote "Jobless Reincarnation," a Japanese anime series, on its site. Female users quickly noted the show objectified women, and even featured pedophilic elements; at one point, the main character, a 34-year-old man, molests a nine-year-old girl.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a Reporter with Protocol | China. She has spent six years covering China from inside and outside its borders. Previously, she was a fellow at Asia Society's ChinaFile and a Beijing-based producer for CNN. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. Shen Lu is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers, a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry.

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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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.

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.

Alphabet wants you to eat balloons instead of dieting

Guessing clothing size, AR car maps, wearable security and other patents from Big Tech.

Filling.

USPTO/Verily

It's the end of another long month week in lockdown, and if you're in the U.S., you're probably not going anywhere this weekend. So sit back and enjoy the latest zany patents from Big Tech, including headphones that allow you to have conversations in multiple languages, AI that can guess what size your clothes are, and AR that helps navigate while driving. And don't worry about getting a snack — Alphabet has an idea for that.

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.

Keep Reading Show less
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.

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