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Apple wants AirPods that won't stick out

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things. Most never amount to anything, but others end up defining the future. We round up this week's most interesting.

AirPods

A new patent awarded to Apple suggests it's still toying with ways to reduce the profile of wireless earbuds.

Photo: Chukrut Budrul/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

This week's patents from Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have something for everyone: a little automation, a folding phone, Wi-Fi-sniffing drones, surgery videos, and a some drone whipping — yes, drone whipping. The future has everything. It's a brave new world.

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Alphabet

YouTube for surgeries

I really wasn't sure if I wanted to click on Verily's new patent titled "Method for comparing videos of surgical techniques," but thankfully it wasn't particularly graphic. According to the patent, "surgeons often watch videos on YouTube to compare their techniques to those of colleagues" to help them see how others carry out procedures and keep them fresh on ones they don't do too often. The patent suggests a system for comparing surgery videos that could standardize things like the frame rate and dimensions of the video to make comparisons easier. Neat! And something I personally will never watch.

How to actually pick up your Waymo ride

This problem won't be an issue for a while, but I guess there's no harm in solving it now. Today, if you've ever called an Uber in a major U.S. city, you've likely had the problem that a black Toyota Camry rolled up, and you thought it was your Uber, but instead it was the Lyft that the guy behind you called, or maybe actually the lady behind him. Every car looks the same, and many times riders end up calling the driver to figure out where they are. That's tougher to do when the car is a robot.

The patent outlines a few ways to figure out how to get people into their autonomous taxis, including cross-referencing location data from the rider's phone and the car, and even potentially using the car's sensors to figure out which people are looking at the car, to determine if they're the ones trying to get in.

Amazon

Crack that whip!

Missed this one when it came out a few weeks ago, but when I saw this GeekWire piece on it, I had to include it, if just for the art alone:

Can you imagine a world where giant aircraft carriers are whipping drones into the sky to deliver Amazon packages in an energy-efficient way? I can't. But, coincidentally, famed author Neal Stevenson can — he has a ton of vehicles like these in his novel "Seveneves" — and he just happened to spend a lot of time at the (Jeff Bezos-owned) space company Blue Origin back in its early days.

Still trying to replace warehouse workers

One of the few remaining tasks in Amazon's warehouses that it's not been able to at least partially automate is picking stuff up and putting it somewhere else. Robots are very good at categorizing stuff, but not so great at identifying and picking it up, which is why even with 100,000 robots on staff, it still employs tens of thousands of people to pick up items people have ordered and place them in boxes. Amazon has been working on solving this with robots for years. This new patent outlines a way of teaching bots how to pick up awkwardly shaped items, like a teddy bear, which it can then repeat for all the teddies that come its way.

Bringing the warehouse to you

Amazon has gotten stunningly good at delivering items in a few days, yet it still sees room for improvement in its logistics pipeline. This patent describes a system for storing sorted items or packages that can be loaded right onto a truck, plane or train, cutting down the manual labor currently required to load them up. The "mobile modules," as the patent calls them, look rather like large shelving units you might see at the Container Store. They can be loaded by a conveyor belt, and then rolled into the back of a truck. This would mean workers wouldn't have to strain nearly as much to load up shipments. Seems a lot simpler than some of the other ideas people out there have.

Apple

A foldable phone

Foldable phones are all the rage right now, even if they're not very good yet. Apple tends not to jump into the deep end on new products until it's sure it has a solid offering, so it's not too surprising that it's starting to explore foldable devices now. Apple's patent goes into a lot of detail about the mechanics of a foldable display for what seems to be a larger, iPad-shaped device that can fold over itself into something that looks like a billfold wallet. Hopefully your actual wallet is full, because whenever it releases a product like this, it definitely won't be cheap.

iRings

Apple's hitting all the tech product trends this week! It also received a patent for a connected ring device. Amazon has already released a rather zany smart-ring device, and it seems Apple wants to jump in on the craze. The ring in question could be used to control a VR environment, and provide haptic feedback to the wearer. I can't wait to suit up for VR games in the future like I'm showing off how many Super Bowl rings I've won.

Slimmer AirPods?

Apple revamped its AirPods with the launch of a Pro model in the fall, which featured a shorter stalk and soft tips to help cancel noise. A new patent awarded to Apple suggests it's still toying with ways to reduce the profile of wireless earbuds. The patent describes a set of earbuds that sit flush in the wearer's ears, rather than protruding outward, as all AirPods models to date do. It could just be that Apple is patenting ideas related to earbuds that it's not pursuing, or it could well be trying to finally make some headphones that actually fit in everyone's ears.

Facebook

Signal-sniffing robots

Facebook won a patent this week for a mobile system that can traverse a room and figure out how strong various wireless signals are throughout the room. In some versions of the system it's envisioning, that system lives on a robot that's able to autonomously move around a room. That could be "a robot that can walk, roll or fly through the space while sampling signals," the patent suggests. Definitely doesn't sound annoying to have a drone buzzing around inside all day trying to figure out if there's a Wi-Fi dead zone in the corner of the office.

Microsoft

Taking notes on a sleeping device

Sometimes you just need to jot down a number. You search around for a pen and paper and none can be found, so you open your phone to take a note, and you've completely forgotten the number. Samsung's Note line of phones solved this problem a few years back, allowing owners to take a note with the phone's stylus while the display was off; in reality you're just writing in white on a black screen and saving a lot of processing power. Microsoft has been awarded a patent for something similar, but considering it hasn't made phones in years, it's possible it's looking into a solution like this for Windows PCs and tablets.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

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