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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.

People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

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Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

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Power

Cord cutting in 2020: Pay TV industry lost 5.5 million subscribers

Subscriber defections slowed toward the end of the year, but there's no end to cord cutting in sight.

The pay TV industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift.

Photo: Nicolas J Leclercq/Unsplash

The five biggest pay TV providers lost a combined 5.5 million subscribers in 2020, narrowly staying below the 5.8 million subscribers the companies collectively lost in 2019. Subscriber losses slowed a bit toward the end of the year, but pandemic-related cutbacks still hit the industry hard — and may have led to hundreds of thousands additional cancellations if not for industry-wide billing relief efforts.

The industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift, with pay TV subscribers switching from traditional operators like Comcast and AT&T to tech companies like Google and Hulu and their respective pay TV services. However, a closer look at pay TV trends suggests that these gains may be temporary, as so-called skinny bundles fall out of favor with consumers once operators are forced to increase their price tags to make up for ever-increasing network licensing costs.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Alphabet wants you to eat balloons instead of dieting

Guessing clothing size, AR car maps, wearable security and other patents from Big Tech.

Filling.

USPTO/Verily

It's the end of another long month week in lockdown, and if you're in the U.S., you're probably not going anywhere this weekend. So sit back and enjoy the latest zany patents from Big Tech, including headphones that allow you to have conversations in multiple languages, AI that can guess what size your clothes are, and AR that helps navigate while driving. And don't worry about getting a snack — Alphabet has an idea for that.

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.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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