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The brain computer cometh

AR glasses

Good morning! This Wednesday, why Facebook is so excited to talk about AR — and what its plans are for the tech. Plus, we have a look at Biden's team of trustbusters, Roblox's direct listing is today, and how a Banksy became an NFT.

Also, we have a new episode of the Source Code podcast, with more from the authors of "2034: A Novel of the Next World War." We talk about China, robots, hoverboards and much more. Have a listen!

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The Big Story

The post-touchscreen world

Facebook is all-in on augmented reality. (Why? Because it's a chance for Facebook to own its destiny, and not be beholden to search engines or app stores or anyone at all.) And it really loves talking about it.

  • First, Mark Zuckerberg told The Information that there's "just something that's really magical about the sense of presence and feeling like you're there with another person and everything that goes into that psychologically."
  • Then yesterday, Facebook's Reality Labs team published a long blog post about all the ways it's trying to make that happen.

Facebook's hardware plans are the most interesting part. The company imagines you'll interact with the digital world through "a pair of soft, lightweight haptic gloves." (Very "Ready Player One.") And it's exploring "a range of neural input options," along the lines of the brain-computer interfaces Regina Dugan talked about way back in 2017.

  • The most promising technologies so far are wrist-based electromyography and inertial measurement units, Facebook said: "The signals through the wrist are so clear that EMG can detect finger motion of just a millimeter. That means input can be effortless — as effortless as clicking a virtual, always-available button — and ultimately it may even be possible to sense just the intention to move a finger."
  • Apple and other companies are also focused on the wrist, of course, for different purposes but the same reason. Without drilling into people's heads Neuralink-style, it might be the best way to access users' biorhythms.
  • Other companies have used ring-like joysticks to control AR devices, but Facebook imagines you might wear a wristband that can track your finger movements the same way.

This won't come true anytime soon, of course. Last week, Facebook CFO David Wehner actually tried to dampen the hype for the "smart glasses" the company is building with Ray-Ban. "It's not going to be anywhere near where we want to eventually go," he said.

And when it does come true, it may not be very surprising. Facebook also detailed a sort of Day in the AR Life yesterday. And for a company claiming to be working on a wholly new paradigm, there's not much very new about it.

  • Our future glasses-wearer is ordering food through a voice assistant, typing on a virtual keyboard inside a virtual screen, getting phone calls and voicemails, and receives "gentle visual reminders" that sound an awful lot like phone notifications. Instead of sitting in a coffee shop looking at your phone, you'd be sitting in a coffee shop looking at your glasses.
  • This is the part of augmented reality nobody has quite solved yet. Other than games, nobody has the killer app. And "slightly faster access to Siri" ain't it, folks.

Still, the blog post is worth a read, mostly as a set of questions around which to frame your work. If AR is going to be as big as the industry thinks, it's going to involve every company and product in some way. Hell, if you own a bakery you're still going to have to decide what your AR sign looks like. And Facebook's definitely right about one thing: The AR world is desperately waiting for its Mother of All Demos.

Regulation

Meet the Trustbuster Troop

Anna Kramer writes: Tech has yet another foe in the Biden administration, and her name is Lina Khan. (Whose name we spelled wrong in yesterday's issue, apologies.) Between the incoming head of the antitrust division at the DOJ Vanita Gupta, Biden special policy advisor on antitrust Tim Wu, and now (pending approval) FTC commissioner Khan, industry leaders finally have names and faces of some of the people likely to push for much harsher antitrust action in the next four years.

But wait, back up: Who is Lina Khan, anyway? Well, she rose to fame as a superstar academic whose writings on Amazon transformed the way lawyers approach antitrust law, according to Protocol's Emily Birnbaum.

  • Khan's most famous article, "Amazon's Antitrust Paradox," challenged the idea that Amazon should get a pass for monopolistic behavior just because it kept goods cheap for customers. If you don't know antitrust law, that was an extremely radical idea when it was published in 2017.
  • She also helped lead the House antitrust investigation into Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook last year, a fact that will not endear her to the many industry folks angered by the findings of that report.
  • So far she's been seen as someone trying to stay out of the political limelight. "Lina is not trying to get a job in a Biden administration or get a job at a platform or at a big law firm — that's not what her aim is," Matt Stoller, her former colleague at the anti-monopoly think tank Open Markets Institute, told Emily last year. Though, uh, looks like she may have gotten one anyway.

This group should — and does — make tech execs nervous. Gupta captured the relationship vibe best at her Senate confirmation hearing yesterday when she said: "I will just say based on my prior engagements with tech companies, I would highly doubt that they would be excited necessarily about my confirmation." And when news of Tim Wu's appointment broke last week, industry leaders called it "dangerous."

There are still a few major holes in Biden's antitrust lineup that could provide room for more moderate voices, chief among them a permanent FTC chair. Though the most popular candidate there might be the acting chair Becca Slaughter — yet another industry skeptic.

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People Are Talking

On Protocol: Keeping the internet open is going to be hard and expensive, the Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle said:

  • "Those who want to monopolize the internet are very well-funded. We need to communicate and deliver the value of openness. Am I optimistic we can do that? I'd say yes. But it's based on an enormous number of people wanting it to happen."

Katrina Parrott is suing Apple for allegedly stealing her idea for emoji with multiple skin tones, but said the real problem is even deeper:

  • "A year ago, they came up with a program to help women developers, Black women developers. Where was the help for me? Why now? Is it because of Black Lives Matter? They knew that I existed, and they did nothing to help me."

Chris Sacca said he keeps getting the same job offer:

  • "I've been offered a bunch of SPAC board seats. The pitch usually goes something like, 'You'll get [lots of shares] for just putting your name on it and doing nothing.'"

Venture capital might be losing its shine, Arlan Hamilton said:

  • "Because so many people have just said I'm done trying to play that game. I'm going to bypass this altogether. I'm going to bootstrap. I'm going to crowdfund. I'm going to go with family offices. And venture capitalists don't have that same sway and that same importance that they once did."

Net neutrality is coming back to Congress, Ed Markey said:

  • "The coronavirus pandemic has proven that broadband is as essential as electricity and other utilities. We need to restore net neutrality protections to ensure that our internet remains open and free and that consumers can continue to benefit from this critical infrastructure."

Making Moves

Roblox is going public today. Not only are investors watching, but all the people building games, services and creator careers on top of the game are as well.

Dropbox bought DocSend for $165 million. The company's getting ever closer to building a complete digital document system.

Apple is leasing a new office in Ireland with room for up to 400 new people. The company has been working on a deal for more office space there since before the pandemic. Apple also said it would invest $1.2 billion to set up a silicon design center in Germany.

Clare Martorana is the new federal CIO. She was previously CIO at the Office of Personnel Management.

Andrew Steer is the new president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund. He joins from the World Resources Institute.

Jim Messina is joining the board of Blockchain.com. He was a longtime top aide in the Obama administration.

In Other News

  • Twitter sued Texas AG Ken Paxton, arguing that his investigation into Twitter's content moderation practices is retaliation against Twitter having banned Trump.
  • On Protocol: Sonos wants tougher antitrust policies. CEO Patrick Spence said new policies should benefit us as citizens, not just consumers.
  • Right to repair is heading to Great Britain, with rules coming this summer designed to keep up with new EU standards.
  • Russia is throttling Twitter, slowing the service down after it said Twitter failed to remove problematic content. It's also threatening to block the service outright.
  • Hackers breached Verkada, a security camera startup. Footage from Tesla and Cloudflare facilities was exposed, as was video from inside health clinics and hospitals.
  • Amazon has over 800 people working on its Vesta home robot, according to Business Insider. The robot will reportedly be the size of "two small cats," and some insiders are concerned it could be a Fire Phone-esque failure.
  • T-Mobile said it will share customers' web and mobile app data with advertisers. People will be automatically enrolled in the program, but have the option to opt out.
  • Facebook's struggling to expand in Indonesia, The Financial Times reported, with its expensive Gojek partnership seemingly stalled — potentially due to Gojek's expected merger with Tokopedia. Meanwhile, Grab is reportedly considering a SPAC listing.

One More Thing

Banksy NFT

The NFT of the day

This is the purpose of this space until further notice: to highlight all the best, weirdest and wackiest in the non-fungible universe. Today's entrant: a Banksy print that someone bought, burned on a livestream and tokenized. And then sold for $380,000.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day; see you tomorrow.

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