Power

Facebook wants to know how much money you have

Plus, Apple has patented the interior design of some potted plants next to a table; Microsoft plans to track workers through their office; Alphabet wants a folding device, too; and Amazon will sell the Platonic ideal of products.

An eyeball looking at a screen

This week, the big tech companies filed patents for new ways to surveil people and new ways for tech to be helpful.

Illustration: PM Images/Getty Images

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, others end up defining the future. Every week, we round up the most interesting to emerge from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's weekly drop of new patents, which it is still doing every Tuesday, and which, in these uncertain times, allows me to know what day it is at least once a week.

This week, the big tech companies filed patents for new ways to surveil people and new ways for tech to be helpful, from providing better job applications, smarter speaker assistants, or, you know, implantable brain-monitoring devices. Hopefully that last one is a few years out.

Alphabet

Foldable Google phone?

Making phones, tablets and computers with foldable displays is all the rage these days. This week, Google received a patent that's basically a twofer, outlining a hinge mechanism for a folding device and software to determine what state the phone is in (such as whether the display is folded open or closed). Google hasn't publicly said that it's working on a foldable Pixel phone or computer, but it started working on support for foldable devices in Android in late 2018. Perhaps soon Google will join the ranks of device-makers that haven't quite figured out how to make a folding screen work, but would still like to charge you a lot of money for the pleasure of owning one.

Upgrade your body

There are already implantable medical devices on the market that can be used to monitor your glucose levels or stimulate your heart, but what about to interact with your brain? It sounds like something ripped from a cyberpunk movie, but many organizations are looking into exactly this idea, from Elon Musk's Neuralink to Facebook. And it's something Verily has also been working on in the background. This patent outlines an implantable device that links up to "a neural interface comprising a plurality of electrical leads." The patent goes into few details over what the brain interface could be used for, beyond "monitoring," but I'm guessing it won't be to store illegal hard drives or jack into a computer simulation, or anything else Keanu Reeves may have tried in the '90s.

Fixing your mistakes for you

If you've ever applied to a bunch of similar jobs or sent the same email to a lot of individual people, you've almost certainly had that mortifying moment when you realize you forgot to change who the email was addressed to, and your stomach drops when you see that you've emailed Sheila and called her Jeff. Google's new patent outlines a copy-paste system that recognizes the context in which text is being pasted. It could swap out names based on the email addresses and other cues.

Amazon

Computer-generated ideal products

Amazon's new patent sounds like it's working on using computers to create the Platonic ideal of the products it sells. The system it outlines suggests taking images of several of the items it sells within a given category, and merging them together to create one generic image that represents that category. This could be marginally useful for brands listing on Amazon, I guess? If you sell shoes and you're not Nike, you'd probably be slightly miffed if a retailer's website puts a picture of Nikes up to represent the "shoe" part of their site. But I could also see it being super confusing for customers who actually want to buy that amalgam of every shoe design Amazon sells. Perhaps that's a future product line for AmazonBasics.

Apple

Speaker zones

Say your kids are on the couch trying to watch TV while you're at the table in the same room trying to watch something on your laptop. It's virtually impossible, as the sound will be clashing, unless you pop in some headphones. Apple's new patent imagines a helpful scenario to keep the kids happy if you've forgotten your headphones: connected speakers that can blast different audio streams to different parts of a room. It's similar to how HomePod speakers can be connected to form audio zones in a house, but in the patent, each unit has speakers pointing in every direction, allowing some of them to fire one type of audio in one direction and another in the other. It's not clear how insane this would sound if you were standing directly in the middle of where the two zones met, but I'm guessing pretty insane.

Potted plants?

Apple is meticulous about its brand image, and that means trying to manage every single aspect of what it does. That includes, apparently, trademarking some potted trees next to some display tables for Apple stores. Apple's former head of retail, Angela Ahrendts, made it her mission to add a ton of greenery to Apple's stores (or "town squares," as she liked to call them), but it remains to be seen whether her successor, Deirdre O'Brien, will be as interested in green spaces.

Facebook

Measuring your lot in life

Facebook knows so much about the people that use its social networks, so perhaps this isn't that surprising a patent, but it's still a bit jarring. Facebook's new patent describes using data it has on people to guess their socioeconomic status. It suggests taking "biographic, demographic and other types of descriptive information, such as work experience, educational history, gender, hobbies or preferences, location and the like" from posts and information shared by a user to determine whether they're working class, middle class or upper class. And the end goal? To provide "sponsored content" for a "product or service to target users of the online system belonging to a particular socioeconomic group." I can't wait to find out which direct-to-consumer brands target me on Facebook based on my lot in life.

Microsoft

Tracking you through the office

This new patent sounds both deeply futuristic and invasive. Microsoft's patent outlines a system of sensors dotted around an office building, in lighting fixtures and other unassuming places, that are all meshed together and talking to each other. As a person passes by the sensors, they'll try to determine who they are, by comparing speech to stored recordings of the employee's voice, as well as things like "height, shoulder width, stride length, and/or facial features," according to the patent. Once the system figures out who is walking by, it can do things like preemptively turn on the lights when they walk into their office. Seems like a fair trade-off for constant biometric surveillance!

Making VR headsets a little less gross

It's far from the only thing keeping AR and VR headsets from hitting the mainstream, but have you ever thought about everyone who's ever sweated on a headset that's handed to you in a public setting? Microsoft's patent outlines how a headset like its HoloLens could wick sweat away from a wearer's forehead and the heat-generating system they're wearing in front of their eyes. The system has a "vapor-permeable spacer" between the device and the wearer that helps evaporate sweat and dissipate heat from the device. But I'd still probably wipe any headset down before putting it on.

"You don't want to work here — this job goes nowhere"

When you're interviewing for a new job, it's pretty common to ask what the prospects for growth at the company are. Microsoft's new patent would give people that information before even applying. It envisions a function on a job-seeking social network — Microsoft just happens to own one of those — that could show potential applicants what the likelihood for job growth is beyond the role they're applying for and what the attrition rate is for people with similar skills and backgrounds.

A real keyboard for your touchscreen device

All-screen laptop-shaped devices are apparently the future, whether we want them or not. Lenovo, Apple and Microsoft itself (which was conveniently awarded a patent on the topic this week!) are all in various stages of thinking about devices that don't have physical keyboards. Microsoft is thinking of way to have and not have a keyboard all at once: a physical keyboard that flips out from underneath the bottom of its folding tablet. It's like when Ryan Seacrest invested in that case company that turned your iPhone into a BlackBerry. Eventually, people do new things because they're easier overall, or they just don't do them. Time will tell if all-screen laptops are truly where we're heading.
Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

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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.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

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Protocol | Workplace

Adobe wants a more authentic NFT world

Adobe's Content Credentials feature will allow Creative Cloud subscribers to attach edit-tracking information to Photoshop files. The goal is to create a more trustworthy NFT market and digital landscape.

Adobe's Content Credentials will allow users to attach their identities to an image

Image: Adobe

Remember the viral, fake photo of Kurt Cobain and Biggie Smalls that duped and delighted the internet in 2017? Doctored images manipulate people and erode trust and we're not great at spotting them. The entire point of the emerging NFT art market is to create valuable and scarce digital files and when there isn't an easy way to check for an image's origin and edits, there's a problem. What if someone steals an NFT creator's image and pawns it off as their own? As a hub for all kinds of multimedia, Adobe feels a responsibility to combat misinformation and provide a safe space for NFT creators. That's why it's rolling out Content Credentials, a record that can be attached to a Photoshop file of a creator's identity and includes any edits they made.

Users can connect their social media addresses and crypto wallet addresses to images in Photoshop. This further proves the image creator's identity, but it's also helpful in determining the creators of NFTs. Adobe has partnered with NFT marketplaces KnownOrigin, OpenSea, Rarible and SuperRare in this effort. "Today there's not a way to know that the NFT you're buying was actually created by a true creator," said Adobe General Counsel Dana Rao. "We're allowing the creator to show their identity and attach it to the image."

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Protocol | China

Why another Chinese lesbian dating app just shut down

With neither political support nor a profitable business model, lesbian dating apps are finding it hard to survive in China.

Operating a dating app for LGBTQ+ communities in China is like walking a tightrope.

Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

When Lesdo, a Chinese dating app designed for lesbian women, announced it was closing down, it didn't come as a surprise to the LGBTQ+ community.

It's unclear what directly caused this decision. 2021 hasn't been kind to China's queer communities; WeChat has deactivated queer groups' public accounts and Beijing has pressured charity organizations not to work with queer activists.

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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.

The Oura Ring was a sleep-tracking hit. Can the next one be even more?

Oura wants to be a media company, an activity tracker and even a way to know you're sick before you feel sick.

Over the last few years, the Oura Ring has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch.

Photo: Oura

Oura CEO Harpreet Rai swears he didn't know Kim Kardashian was a fan. He was as surprised as anyone when she started posting screenshots from the Oura app to her Instagram story, and got into a sleep battle with fellow Oura user Gwyneth Paltrow. Or when Jennifer Aniston revealed that Jimmy Kimmel got her hooked on Oura … and how her ring fell off in a salad. "I am addicted to it," Aniston said, "and it's ruining my life" by shaming her about her lack of sleep. "I think we're definitely seeing traction outside of tech," Rai said. "Which is cool."

Over the last couple of years, Oura's ring (imaginatively named the Oura Ring) has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch. The company started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but really started to find traction with its second-generation model in 2018. It's not exactly a mainstream device — Oura said it has sold more than 500,000 rings, up from 150,000 in March 2020 but still not exactly Apple Watch levels — but it has reached some of the most successful, influential and probably sleep-deprived people in the industry. Jack Dorsey is a professed fan, as is Marc Benioff.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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