Power

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.

Fintech

Gavin Newsom shows crypto some California love

“A more flexible approach is needed,” Gov. Newsom said in rejecting a bill that would require crypto companies to get a state license.

Strong bipartisan support wasn’t enough to convince Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Vox Media

The Digital Financial Assets Law seemed like a legislative slam dunk in California for critics of the crypto industry.

But strong bipartisan support — it passed 71-0 in the state assembly and 31-6 in the Senate — wasn’t enough to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

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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.

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.”

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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.
Workplace

Slack’s rallying cry at Dreamforce: No more meetings

It’s not all cartoon bears and therapy pigs — work conferences are a good place to talk about the future of work.

“We want people to be able to work in whatever way works for them with flexible schedules, in meetings and out of meetings,” Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua told Protocol at Dreamforce 2022.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dreamforce is primarily Salesforce’s show. But Slack wasn’t to be left out, especially as the primary connector between Salesforce and the mainstream working world.

The average knowledge worker spends more time using a communication tool like Slack than a CRM like Salesforce, positioning it as the best Salesforce product to concern itself with the future of work. In between meeting a therapy pig and meditating by the Dreamforce waterfall, Protocol sat down with several Slack execs and conference-goers to chat about the shifting future.

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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.

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

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Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Policy

SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

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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.

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