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Microsoft wants to outsource your memories to AR

Plus autolocking doors, an Apple AR headset and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants to outsource your memories to AR

Apple's new AR headset patent design.

Photo: Courtesy of USPTO

Life is … strange … these days, so anything that can make it a little easier to get through the day would be very welcome. Coincidentally, many of the patents from Big Tech this week do just that. Google wants to make sure you don't forget to lock your doors or miss your appointments, Amazon wants to make sure your microphone works wherever you are, and Microsoft wants to make your camera easier to use. For these minor improvements to my future life, I thank you, Big Tech.

And remember: Companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Alphabet

Automatically booking you an Uber

Sometimes, when you're running late and trying to juggle a million different things, you completely forget that you should've called for a cab five minutes ago, and now you're definitely going to be late for your new puppy's first vet appointment. (Purely hypothetical, definitely not my exact current situation.) Google's new patent could be a lifesaver for people who've entrusted the company with their calendar and whereabouts. It suggests that the assistant would be able to automatically book a ride for you when it's getting close to the time you need to leave, based on traffic. Where was this feature last week when I was sitting in unexpected traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge with a whining pup?!

Holding down the fort with Google

Apparently, in the world beyond big cities, people leave their doors unlocked. Sometimes even when they're not home. Google seems to want to add a little bit of security to small neighborhoods, though: Its new patent outlines a system for controlling smart locks based on your location. If you're home alone, you can have the door always automatically lock behind you. The patent also imagines a scenario where it's late at night and someone is approaching the front door while people are home — the lock could send a notification to the owner's phone asking whether they'd like to lock the door. Sounds handy, but also a lot more complicated than what we do in cities: keep your door locked all the time.

Amazon

A robot that sucks

Amazon received considerably fewer patents than usual this week, but there were still a few gems in the mix, including this one that at first glance looks like a lightsaber. It's in fact a robotic arm with a suction-cup attachment at the end. The suction cup is actuated, so it can pick up objects at different angles. Amazon has been working on figuring out how to automate the process of packing boxes at its warehouse for years — perhaps this is a step along that process.

Figuring out if it's too loud to use a microphone

As I write this, there is a van beeping as it backs out of a warehouse, a power saw going across the street, and a line of cars honking that do not seem to realize there's a big crane in the middle of my street. It's not the best environment for constant Zoom calls, if I'm honest. Perhaps in the future this patent could help me out: Using sensors built into devices, such as microphones, the patent suggests a future where devices would be able to tell us if the environment is too loud for us to be heard without annoying the people we're speaking to, or whether a voice assistant product like an Amazon Echo would be able to hear us. But hopefully all this working from home will encourage device manufacturers to actually start putting decent microphones ( and cameras!) into our products.

Apple

A whole building

In my time looking into Apple, it's won patents for all sorts of random things you see in its stores — the planters, the weird wooden boxes they have instead of seats, the Apple Watch display tables — but I can't remember ever seeing one for an entire Apple store before. But that's just what this patent is for, and it appears to be the very snazzy store built by Foster + Partners in 2015 in Hangzhou, China. I'm not sure if this means the company wants to take this design and replicate it in other locations, or if it's just so unique that it felt it needed the USPTO to have a record of its beauty for some reason.

Using an iPhone to power an AR headset

Apple is, at some point, likely going to release an augmented-reality headset. Most reports have suggested that it would be a standalone device that links up to the iPhone, much like the Apple Watch, but this new patent implies that Apple is at least considering making a headset that's powered by the phone itself. In the drawings, the phone would slot into the headset, and the screen would become the headset display. There would also be a small cutout for the camera on the front of the headset, allowing the wearer to see the world in front of them. Comparing the device to other phone-powered headsets on the market, it seems like this could be a way for Apple to keep the price down on its own headset, even if it would likely be sacrificing a fair bit in terms of weight and aesthetics.

Facebook

A pop-up over your News Feed

On the rare occasions that I log on to Facebook anymore, I almost always miss whatever important life events my friends have been going through, and instead see the last thing they posted about the election, Trump or some other argument I really don't want to jump into. In this patent, a user is shown a pop-up covering their News Feed for a post from a friend asking if anyone wants to get dinner soon. It's more timely and pertinent than the post it's covering ("what do you think of the nice people in the Star Gazing movie?" is an amazing made-up post, though), and so is likely more useful to the user at that exact moment. After they've looked at it, then they could get back to their diatribe about how Star Gazing is in fact propaganda or a global conspiracy.

Microsoft

Changing camera modes automatically

This new patent from Microsoft envisions making the process a little simpler with computer vision. In the patent, the camera system would be able to "see" what's in the photo and help determine what camera settings the user likely wants to use. For example, in the situation below, the camera recognizes the page of the book, and highlights it, and would then ask the user if they wanted to turn on document-scanning mode. This could be extremely useful for all those times you've wanted to capture a quick-moving scenario and randomly selected panoramic or slow-motion or some other unhelpful mode on your camera, and then completely missed the moment as you swipe over to the right setting.

Generating event details from messages

If you've ever tried to organize an event with people who use several different apps for their primary mode of communication, you've invariably lost the thread with someone at some point. This patent aims to make keeping track of the details a little easier. It envisions software that would live inside a phone or computer that could collect information from multiple different apps to create "event cards" to help you keep the details straight. You'd then be able to share that card with anyone else who was interested in joining. It also suggests a screen that would collect all your upcoming events, which in this example includes something called a "mud puddle," which I both do and do not want to know what that entails.

Saving an augmented reality

This patent is truly from the realm of fantasy — not because of the tech it outlines, but because it envisions the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 7 of the World Series. That being said, the idea in the patent is pretty neat: It suggests being able to save experiences watched in augmented reality so you could watch them again. The case in the patent shows someone watching this unrealistic baseball game with two other people, and recording the experience so they could go back and experience it exactly as they did when it happened. No longer will you have to ask the question "where were you?" when something momentous happens — you'll be able to play back the exact moment and re-create it in your glasses. Who needs memories anymore?

Protocol | Workplace

The pay gap persists for Black women

"The pay gap is a multifaceted problem and any time you have a complex problem, there's not a single solution that's going to solve it."

For every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, Black women are paid just 63 cents, according to the American Community Survey Census data.

Photo: Christine/Unsplash

Last year's racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd led many tech companies to commit to promoting equity within their organizations, including working toward pay equity. But despite efforts, the wage gap for Black women still persists. For every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, Black women are paid just 63 cents, according to the American Community Survey Census data.

Black Women's Equal Pay Day on Tuesday represents the estimated number of days into the year it would take for Black women to make what their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts made at the end of the previous year, according to the organization Equal Pay Today. And while the responsibility to fix the pay gap falls mostly on companies to rectify, some female employees have taken matters into their own hands and held companies to their asserted values by negotiating higher pay.

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Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.

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What comes to mind when you think of AI? In the past, it might have been the Turing test, a sci-fi character or IBM's Deep Blue-defeating chess champion Garry Kasparov. Today, instead of copying human intelligence, we're seeing immense progress made in using AI to unobtrusively simplify and enrich our own intelligence and experiences. Natural language processing, modern encrypted security solutions, advanced perception and imaging capabilities, next-generation data management and logistics, and automotive assistance are some of the many ways AI is quietly yet unmistakably driving some of the latest advancements inside our phones, PCs, cars and other crucial 21st century devices. And the combination of 5G and AI is enabling a world with distributed intelligence where AI processing is happening on devices and in the cloud.

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Alex Katouzian
Alex Katouzian currently serves as senior vice president and general manager of the Mobile, Compute and Infrastructure (MCI) Business Unit at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. In this role, Katouzian is responsible for the profit, loss and strategy of the MCI BU, which includes business lines for Mobile Handset Products and Application Processor Technologies, 4G and 5G Mobile Broadband for embedded applications, Small and Macro Cells, Modem Technologies, Compute products across multiple OS’, eXtended Reality and AI Edge Cloud products.
Protocol | Workplace

Tech company hybrid work policies are becoming more flexible, not less

Twitter, LinkedIn and Asana are already changing their hybrid policies to allow for more flexibility.

Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images

Twitter, LinkedIn and Asana are all loosening up their strategies around hybrid work, allowing for more flexibility before even fully reopening their offices.

In the last week and a half, Twitter announced it's adopting an asynchronous-first approach, and both Asana and LinkedIn said they would increase the amount of time their employees can work remotely.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
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Activision Blizzard scrambles to repair its toxic image

Blizzard President J. Allen Brack is the first executive to depart amid the sexual harassment crisis.

Activision Blizzard doesn't seem committed to lasting change.

Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Getty Images

As Activision Blizzard's workplace crisis rages on into its third week, the company is taking measures to try to calm the storm — to little avail. On Tuesday, Blizzard President J. Allen Brack, who took the reins at the developer responsible for World of Warcraft back in 2018, resigned. He's to be replaced by executives Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra, who will co-lead the studio in a power-sharing agreement some believe further solidifies CEO Bobby Kotick's control over the subsidiary.

Nowhere in Blizzard's statement about Brack's departure does it mention California's explosive sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit at the heart of the saga. The lawsuit, filed last month, resulted last week in a 500-person walkout at Blizzard's headquarters in Irvine. (Among the attendees was none other than Ybarra, the new studio co-head.)

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Workplace

Alabama Amazon workers will likely get a second union vote

An NLRB judge said that Amazon "usurped" the NLRB by pushing for a mailbox to be installed in front of its facility, and also that the company violated laws that protect workers from monitoring of their behavior during union elections.

An NLRB judge ruled that Amazon has violated union election rules

Image: Amazon

Bessemer, Alabama warehouse workers will likely get a second union vote because of Amazon's efforts to have a USPS ballot box installed just outside of the Bessemer warehouse facility during the mail-in vote, as well as other violations of union vote rules, according to an NLRB ruling published Tuesday morning.

While union organizers, represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, lost the first vote by more than a 2:1 margin, a second election will be scheduled and held unless Amazon successfully appeals the ruling. Though Amazon is the country's second-largest private employer, no unionization effort at the company has ever been successful.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

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