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Microsoft wants to turn your shirt into a computer

Bringing your car with you, stopping stream sniping, AR privacy and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants to turn your shirt into a computer

The height of fashion.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Welcome to the end another week in the longest January of all time! At least that means another patent roundup is headed your way. As ever, Big Tech had some great ones this week, ranging from the truly mad, like Microsoft computerizing fabrics, to Google making game controllers more interactive and Apple building software for cars that moves with you.

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

Getting notifications on a game controller

This one brings me back to the days of the Sega Dreamcast. It was a beautiful, flawed console, but one of its most recognizable innovations was the VMU, a small device with a little LCD display that could display in-game messages and play little mini-games when undocked from the controller. Google's latest patent seems to be inspired by the ethos of the VMU, envisioning presumably another iteration of its Stadia controller with a small screen or speakers that could announce in-game messages or other notifications to the gamer without distracting them from the game they're in. Maybe they'll even release a Godzilla edition.

Just a button that says "Go"

This patent does what it says on the tin. It's just a patent for the design of a large button in Waymo autonomous vehicles for passengers to press when they're ready to … go. Heaven forbid someone has a go button that looks like yours.

Amazon

Stopping stream sniping

This is a big issue in the world of gaming: when you're streaming and someone playing the same game as you watches your stream to see where you are. It's like back in the old days when you'd play a game with your friends and cheat by looking at their quarter of the screen. This new patent from Amazon, which owns Twitch, aims to fix this, either by obfuscating pieces of information from the streamer so another gamer can't figure out where they are, or just blocking people watching the stream from joining the game altogether. Unfortunately, it seems like if you want to be a jerk, you could just log onto the stream from another device.

Molecular authenticators

Perhaps Amazon is interested in getting into the precious gem and old Rolex game. This new patent outlines a system for using molecular-level sensors to determine an item's authenticity, purportedly to cut down on counterfeit goods. I could definitely see this being useful for items that can be relatively easily authenticated, like diamonds. But considering there have been countless issues with knock-offs and unsafe products hitting Amazon's site, perhaps there are other solutions worth looking into.

Apple

Disappearing buttons

It sometimes feels as if the platonic ideal of an Apple product is a single piece of brushed aluminum and glass, unburdened by such trivialities as buttons and sockets. And perhaps this patent helps Apple get there: It outlines methods for creating buttons or sliders that can be hidden under another material. It could be something like a power button or volume controls embedded below the aluminum surface of a MacBook, which reveal themselves when illuminated. It's like the controls of the 2003 iPod, revived for today's devices.



Bringing your preferences with you

Have you ever driven a friend's car and had to readjust everything to your preferences? The rearview mirror's in the wrong place, your seat needs to be much higher, you don't want the heated steering wheel on — it's just not how you drive. You might even have the exact same car as your friend, but it's not like you can automatically bring your setup preferences with you. Apple's new patent envisions just that scenario, with your car's system interacting with your phone and your phone then interacting with your friend's car. If Apple is serious about building software that future cars run on, this seems like a real possibility.

Facebook

A privacy sound field

As Facebook and others continue to push augmented reality into the mainstream, it's working on ways to make sure you can still hear the world around you, but the world can't hear your conversations. Instead of jamming headphones into your ears and blocking out the world, Facebook is looking at ways of broadcasting audio, while blocking the sound to potential nosy passersby. The patent outlines a system where an AR device can detect sounds around it and block out projecting sounds to certain nearby areas based on where people are. It seems like it might just be easier to wear headphones, to be honest.

Microsoft

Computerized shirts

Have you ever wished your computer was actually just your shirt? Probably not, but what if your fabrics had more computerized parts? It's something Google has pioneered with its Jacquard project, and something Microsoft is apparently looking into. But beyond just weaving electronically conductive material into fabric, Microsoft's patent goes further, suggesting embedding things like "microcontrollers, integrated circuits, solar cells, [LEDs], batteries, conductors, actuators, switches, buttons," among other things. Perhaps someday soon you could literally wear your computer. If you wanted to do that.

Letting AI decide aesthetics

Microsoft is continuing its recent trend of outsourcing creativity to AI with this patent. This particular patent is concerned with what search results pages look like, arguing "in addition to relevance and freshness, people want aesthetically pleasing search results." I haven't really ever thought about the aesthetics of what a Bing or Google search page looks like, but if an AI system could arrange and curate it to my specific tastes, I could see myself being more engaged with it. But half the time I'm just searching for the closest taco joint or when Chelsea is playing — I'm trying to spend as little time on the search place as possible and as much time eating tacos while watching soccer as possible.

Turning batteries into antennae

As devices get smaller and smaller, it becomes more difficult to get all the important components in. Some things, like batteries, just haven't been miniaturized like others, so Microsoft is looking into ways to make them pull double duty. In this patent, it outlines a setup where an array of small batteries could also double as radio antennas. For small IoT devices, you could see a design like this being useful, where space is at such a premium.

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.
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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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