Power

What's been missing from VR? A cool pair of shoes, apparently

Plus, morphing keyboards, toys in video games, paying your gambling debts in VR, and other patents from big tech.

Michael Jordan tying his shoe

Is it the shoes? Maybe the VR shoes Google is cooking up will one day let you live out the dream of being Like Mike.

Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It's another week in quarantine, and with all of the VR patents I've been reading over the last few months, it's almost enough to get me to pick one up and at least pretend I'm not still in my house. And big tech seems to be coming up with some zany things to keep me entertained in VR: I could wear shoes that allow me to walk for miles without leaving my room, become a high roller in VR gambling, and maybe even figure out how to not get motion sick wearing a headset.

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

Keeping your PIN safe in VR

If you've ever had to take money out of an ATM at a bar, you've probably looked over your shoulders in both directions, huddled closely to the PIN pad and covered it while you typed, for fear that others might figure out your code. Apparently this is now something we need to consider in the world of VR. In a rather fantastic scenario that this Google patent outlines, some people are playing a card game in VR when one player, named Holly, chooses to show some of her VR notifications to everyone playing with her. Holly may have a bit of gambling problem, as she seems to be having to take out more cash for the game, and wants to keep her PIN private from the other players. But depending on how much she's taking out, they might not even need to snoop — they might be winning it away from her on the next hand.

VR shoes

There's so much talk about making gloves to help us better interact with virtual worlds, but what about our other appendages? Google seems to be thinking about how we move around in VR, patenting what seems to be a cross between 1950s roller skates and sensors to interact with VR computers. The idea aims to end one of the biggest problems keeping VR from being a truly immersive experience: Our rooms just aren't that big. Right now, while VR systems can track your movements, you're always limited to the space you're in — and walls and chairs still hurt. Google's patent would use motors and wheels (or treads) on the shoes, along with tracking devices that know where the room's walls are, to always ensure the wearer has space to move around in their virtual space. I can definitely see Moonwalk-like videos going massively viral.

A collapsible stylus

Styluses are great ways of interacting with touchscreens, especially if you're any good at drawing (which is probably why I never use mine). But larger styluses that actually feel good to write with tend to be difficult to hide inside the device itself. Many companies now use magnets or pieces of fabric to attach styluses to tablets, but it's still very easy to lose them. Google's patent has a different approach: It outlines making a stylus that could fold flat, making it easier to stash inside another device. The user would then either unroll it or push it together — like plumping up a pillow — to use it. Sadly I don't think it would make me draw any better.

Amazon

How Alexa hears you before she's listening

The thing is, Alexa is listening to you all the time, even before you say its name. This patent outlines how Amazon's smart devices figure out what to process and what to ignore. Basically, the microphone is always listening and processing speech, and whenever the assistant thinks it hears its wake word, it sends a recording of whatever follows it up to the cloud for processing. It's how Alexa listens before it's listening, even though it's not really listening.

Mapping your room for VR

While Google is trying to make sure you can move around in VR, Amazon seems concerned with ensuring your VR world actually fits in your real one. This patent outlines a system for measuring the space of your room using the cameras on your smartphone, and uploading it to Amazon. This would allow any VR or AR experience to be sized for the room you're in — if Amazon were building a virtual mall for you to explore, you wouldn't accidentally walk into a wall while moving to try on some virtual outfits. And given we're all stuck at home, this seems like a great idea. I could use some new sweatpants.

How drones navigate the world

Amazon won three patents this week that shed a little light on how delivery drones might get to where they're going. First they use zoomable lenses to discern things at various distances — How far away is that tree line? How close am I to that building? — and then they use GPS to locate themselves in the world. And if that fails, they do pretty much the same thing humans have been doing forever when they're lost: Look for familiar landmarks to figure out where they are. They can also send that data to other drones to help them out if they're lost. Hopefully, unlike so many stubborn men, they won't be too proud to ask for directions.

Apple

Combating motion sickness with VR

I get terrible motion sickness in just about anything that moves. I even get it when I'm the one driving! I can't necessarily see how strapping a VR rig to my head while sitting in a moving vehicle would help me feel better, but apparently that's something Apple is looking into. The idea in the patent is to re-create scenes of the real world, moving along at the speed of the vehicle, to better acclimatize your confused body to what's going on. But given most VR systems — even the ones not running on the highest-powered computers out there — give me motion sickness themselves, this is definitely something I'm going to let others try first.

Feedback you can feel

Tapping away on virtual keyboards on glass surfaces tends to get tiresome without any sort of physical feedback. Companies have tried to come up with ways around this for years, such as the (extremely annoying) audible taps as you type, or small vibrations as you hit each key. But Apple is apparently thinking of taking this a step further by creating a screen that could actually move as you type on it. Its patent outlines using small pieces of wire, attached to tiny motors below a flexible display, that could give someone the sensation that they're typing on something that actually moves, like a real keyboard. And now that the iPad has mouse support, who knows what sort of wonderful new input methods Apple will finally be open to?

Light-up notifications

Many Android devices over the years have had small colored LEDs that unobtrusively let their owners know when they had a notification, without any sounds or vibrations. Apple's phones have always shied away from this, but now it's at least exploring the idea for phones or wearables. This patent describes a ring of tiny lights that would sit around the device's main display that could either be used to alert the user to a notification, or even display simple messages themselves. I'm not sure whether I'd want my iPhone blinking at me, though I do sorely miss that Indiglo button on my old Timex watch. That might be fun to have on my $400 wrist computer.

Facebook

Live-transcribing videos

Transcribing audio is time-consuming, and generally not fun. And if you've ever watched a TV with closed-captioning on, you'll know that doing it live is even worse. Facebook is working on making it better, winning a patent to transcribe snippets of voice notes that could be added to a user's profile page. The examples in the patent seem to suggest that there are humans out there who speak exactly the way they post on Facebook, which explains … a lot. Hopefully the transcription technology works better than the last time Mark Zuckerberg used something similar for a live speech.

Putting media companies out of work

There are some news outlets in the world that spend a lot of their time aggregating the work of other journalists. Think what you will of this practice, but it's a (meager) living. Facebook seems to be thinking of ways to make that job irrelevant. This new patent outlines algorithms designed to infer the gist of a link and create a snippet using the most commonly used words in the story. The system could even potentially tailor the summary it creates to each user it shows it to, playing up angles it thinks they would be most interested in — assuming the system had access to something like a user's Facebook account.

Making Facebook a little more interactive

If you're scrolling through your news feed, the overwhelming majority of content you'll see comes in rectangular boxes, usually containing a still image or a video for you to click on. Especially if you have autoplaying videos turned off, everything sort of blends together as a hodgepodge of images. Facebook, apparently, is thinking about ways to make things stand out a little bit more. This patent describes a system where the images in posts can animate and move with the screen as the user scrolls down. One example it gives, for an ad for a theoretical airline company, is a plane pulling down and taking off from a runway as the user scrolls down. It could be just interesting enough to stop the user's thumb before they mindlessly scroll away.

Microsoft

The strangest email marketing idea

Imagine you're emailing a friend about a video game you played last week, and you apparently can't remember anything about the game at all so you've asked your friend what it was called. Before you press send, your email provider alerts you that your friend, who currently has the email address "dp123af45@domain1.com," could have the much nicer "dipak@domain2.com" if they wanted, and asks if you want to include a note about it in your email. I'm not sure why I'd want to bug my friends like this, but maybe if they really care about their usernames on the internet, this is one way to get them to use Outlook. (To be fair: I have @mcwm reserved on just about every platform, so who am I to judge?)

A fun patent to defend

Usually, patents have quite specific titles that describe the specific invention in the field they're working within. But this week Microsoft won a patent that's simply titled "Augmented Reality." It goes on to describe what we generally think of when talking about AR — three-dimensional virtual objects layered over the real world, projected through a headset — and even mentions the HoloLens. Although it mentions some of the specifics of the HoloLens, it's talking pretty generally about the concept. It'll be interesting to see whether Microsoft intends to actually use this patent as a way to go after any other competitors' products, or just to define what AR means to the company.


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Physical toys for your virtual games

One surefire way for a games maker to eke out more revenue from kids is to turn their game into a line of toys. Have cool robots or giant Vikings in your games? Some kid will want to play with them, and will happily bug their parents for eternity into buying them one. It's an added bonus if the toys can interact with the game. Nintendo has done this quite successfully with its Amiibo line of figurines, and there's the Starlink game, which literally revolves around plastic spaceships you have to build to play the game. It seems Microsoft wants to get in on the action, winning a patent this week for toys that could be added into Xbox games, such as a race car that kids could reconfigure to go faster in the game world, or a shield you buy for a knight that he gets to use in the game. It's like loot boxes, but you can play with them when the game is off.

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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