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.


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


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.

Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories
Bulletins