Your next office desk is your current desk, but in VR

Plus, leather-bound iPads, blocking virtual avatars, quiet drones, helpful smart assistants and other patents.

A desk with a bunch of office supplies on it

Google imagines a future where we could visualize that we're at the office, sitting at our regular desks, wherever we are.

Photo: Fred Kloet/Unsplash

It took about eight weeks of lockdown, but it seems the quarantine is finally starting to have an effect on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. There were surprisingly few patents awarded to big tech this week, but there are still some gems on the list. Google is overly concerned about a VR future we definitely aren't in yet; Apple wants to make devices out of leather; Facebook is fine-tuning AR glasses; and Microsoft just wants to help us organize meetings. As if we have anywhere to go right now.

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

VR globes

If you've read Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" (which, if not, you absolutely should), you'll know that characters can use a little globe to navigate in their VR world and see what's going on in the real one. A new patent from Google has a similar purpose — which may have been inspired by Stephenson in the first place. It shows a small globe that could be overlaid on the virtual world to help users navigate around. You'd pick up a little Pegman, move him from wherever you are, and drop in on São Paulo or Kyoto or wherever you want to go.

Our virtual office future

This Google patent discusses how a VR system can make sure that when a user's hands cross over, they don't mess up the virtual interface. But what's more interesting here is that Google is showing a VR office setup in its patent diagrams, complete with a virtual keyboard and desktop display in front of you. The user would wear a headset that could project a virtual keyboard and a screen in front of them. It would mean that in the future, we could visualize that we're at the office, sitting at our regular desks, wherever we are. And that's especially prescient, given that many office workers still don't know when they're going to get back into the real-life office.

Overriding avatars

Google has another idea for a VR reality that isn't really here yet, but would probably come in handy in the future that "Ready Player One" envisions. The patent outlines a way to override another VR user's avatar if you don't like it. If a user is put off by someone else's avatar — as the patent puts it, "the particular user may experience negative psychological effects upon participating in the conventional virtual environment" — they could change it to something more pleasing to them. The patent outlines a scenario — that might be more useful to younger gamers — in which a user with a skull for an avatar approaches a player who decides to change what they see to an adorable bunny. Far less intimidating, and the skull-bunny user would be none the wiser.

A bloody good patent

This patent is about figuring out when words are used in specific contexts and whether they would be deemed offensive. The entire patent's argument seems to rest on the words "bloody" — which can obviously mean something covered in blood, or be used as an extremely mild expletive in the U.K. — and shag, which no one since Austin Powers has used to mean anything other than a type of outdated carpet. But Google has apparently put AI research time into making sure no one from London circa 1962 is offended online in 2020.

Amazon

Which way is up?

A weird problem I constantly have: When I take landscape photos, my phone randomly stores half of them in portrait. This is especially annoying when I'm trying to upload shots of my amazing cooking to the internet for praise, and I've often wondered to myself when selecting photos why the smartphone doesn't know which way is up. Apparently, this is something Amazon is thinking about, too: In this patent, it outlines an algorithm that can interpret what's in an image, figure out where the vanishing points are for the objects it recognizes, and reorient the picture automatically if need be when it's uploaded to the web.

Quieter drone motors

The idea of drones delivering us things whenever we need them — like during a pandemic! — is still pretty rare, but hopefully when drones do start dropping packages off at more people's front doors, we won't hear them coming from miles away. Almost all drones made today sound like an angry swarm of bees when they're flying by, but Amazon's new patent suggests a new way to align the magnets in their motors that would potentially dampen or alter the sound. That would be useful, but we don't want to go too far the other way and have these things being silent — can you imagine a drone creeping up behind you with that hot coffee you ordered?

Apple

Leather-clad devices

If Apple devices don't feel luxurious enough for you already, what if they were bound in leather? As this patent so eloquently puts it: "Leather tends to be soft to the touch and pleasing to the eye, making it an ideal material for carrying or covering electronic equipment." Apple is apparently considering making peripherals or other devices covered in leather that could be flexible and still emit light, like perhaps a backlit iPad Pro keyboard, but made out of supple tanned cow skin. I can see the collaboration with Hermès now: a new light-up iPhone case can be yours for the low price of $1,795.

Flexible batteries

Like every other electronics manufacturer out there, Apple is likely working on flexible-display devices. While existing foldable devices have largely been a bust so far, a future device that also had bendable batteries could go a long way to making something truly flexible. Right now, devices generally have plastic screens that fold or roll out along a single point (making them more likely to break at that point), while housing the battery in a part that doesn't bend. As the patent implies, perhaps in a distant future, we'll be able to unfurl our iPhones like we used to do with the morning paper.

Facebook

Show your face, digitally

When we're all working from home during the next pandemic, strapped into our VR headsets for 3D Zoom calls, how will our co-workers know when we're reacting to their funny jokes? Well, if Facebook has anything to do with it, it'll be because we're wearing advanced headsets that can gauge our facial expressions. A patent this week outlines a system of electrodes inside a VR headset that can interpret a person's facial movements as expressions, including, as the patent puts its, "a humorous expression by sticking out their tongue." I wouldn't encourage licking your headset, though.

Facebook also won another patent this week to similarly track people's expressions using sensors like cameras, mounted on the bottom of a headset.

Blocking out the haters (and everything else)

Noise-canceling wireless earbuds are all the rage these days, but if you don't want to physically block out your ears, there aren't many options out there that will actually work. Facebook is apparently thinking of particular situations where you'd have on augmented-reality glasses that wouldn't work well with noise-canceling headphones. The sound emitters in these theoretical glasses would be tuned to block out as much external noise as possible, while not blocking the wearer off from the world or blasting what they're hearing out to everyone around them. Also, check out this truly stunning piece of artwork that was submitted as part of the patent application:


Microsoft

Taking a good idea from Apple's playbook

Microsoft may have kickstarted the hybrid tablet market with the launch of the Surface, but Apple's iPad Pro has one trick that Redmond seems interested in copying. The last-generation iPad Pro introduced a stylus that magnetically attaches to the body of the tablet and wirelessly charges through a small electromagnetic coil embedded into the side of the device. Microsoft's new patent suggests it's thinking of doing similarly for the upcoming Surface Neo device. Because if your tablet doesn't have a way of affixing the stylus to the device, there's a nonzero chance that you'll lose it within 5 minutes of buying it. Not that I'm speaking from experience.


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Making calendar invites that much easier

The worst part of trying to set up any meeting is the scramble to find a time that works for everyone. Invariably, one important person can't make it, and then you've got to go around to everyone again begging for another time that works. Microsoft has a thought about a better way: integrating a poll function into calendar invites so everyone can see what times work for everyone else. It's so simple and perfect that it's amazing there isn't already something like this built into major email clients.

Virtual assistants that are actually helpful

Companies that make virtual assistants (I'm looking at you, Amazon) love to tout how many "skills" their systems have, but actually discovering new ones and finding out how to call on them is easier said than done. Microsoft's new patent wants to lessen the auditory hoops you have to jump through. For example, instead of a user having to know whether Alexa has partnerships with Seamless, Uber Eats or Postmates, they could just say, "Please order food for delivery," and the assistant would ask them which service they'd like to use. Assuming they already had an account on file, the user and assistant could carry on their conversation about what they actually want to eat, instead of going through a labyrinth of audible menus and app stores to figure out how to enable the Uber Eats skill to order a burrito. And if you're hungry, the last thing you want is unnecessary steps between you and a burrito.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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