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Alphabet's implanted sensors and Amazon's socially distant book club

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things. Most never amount to anything, but others end up defining the future.

Women laughing at a book club

Remember when we used to hang out with other people? Maybe while discussing a book? That was fun. That time has passed, for now, but Amazon has a solution, according to a patent filing this week: a socially distant book club.

Photo: The Image Bank via Getty Images

The world may be grinding to a halt, but things at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are still full steam ahead. Maybe it's observation bias, but several of the patents from big tech this week would actually be helpful for our new, socially distant reality. There's remote book clubs, sales kiosks without people and even virtual karaoke. If the future requires us to stay physically isolated, the tech companies have plans for how to handle it.

Alphabet

Implantable Bluetooth devices that take your temperature

Who needs wearables when you could just get the tech implanted inside you? That's the question that a new patent from Verily posits this week. It outlines a small Bluetooth-enabled device that could be implanted into someone's arm muscles or chest that could talk to a smartphone, in the same way a set of AirPods or a smartwatch could. The device could have sensors onboard that could measure the person's temperature, blood pressure, oxygen level, or pH level, according to the patent. I very much do not want to know how they envision sending notifications to that device.

Smart clothes for better posture

My dad always told me to sit up straight, that it was good for my back. He's gone now, and I wish he could tell me that again. He would probably like this Google patent for garments with built-in sensors that judge your posture. While this might be useful information for people who sit at a desk all day, it could be game-changing for jobs that put a ton of stress on the body, like warehouse workers. Being able to track how workers carry out their tasks and let them know whether their posture needs to be adjusted could be the difference between an uneventful shift and a repetitive stress injury. Also your parents are usually right about stuff like this, even if you don't want to admit it.

Amazon

Socially distance book clubs

This patent couldn't have come at a better time. We might not be able to convene book clubs in person, but Amazon seems to be thinking about ways to bring literature lovers together remotely. The patent outlines a system that could live inside a Kindle where friends could all be reading the same book and see each other's progress. The system could disallow readers from reading too far ahead of others, presumably so you can all find out that Dumbledore dies together (Mike! Spoiler much?! — ed.), and even allow for the group to vote out members who have fallen too far behind. It's like "Survivor," but for you and your friends stuck at home on the couch.

Buying alone

Another patent that could be useful for our new reality: Amazon already has lockers that customers can choose to get packages delivered to, but it seems to be exploring letting people buy things on their phones and pick them up at specially designed kiosks. Instead of full-service Amazon Go stores, the patent outlines small kiosks with touch screens that are stocked with essential items that users can check the inventory of online. Want a new Kindle? Well, this kiosk three blocks away has one — buy it now, type in a passcode when you get to the kiosk, and deal with no humans to complete your purchase. Just make sure to wipe down whatever you buy when you get home.

Tracking in-store purchases

Not every inventory-monitoring system needs to involve computer-vision cameras dotted around a store or robots patrolling the aisles. Amazon's new patent outlines a pretty novel way of tracking whether products are flying off the shelves. It includes simple RFID tags on items — the key staples the patent diagrams include mild shredded cheese, video games, batteries and ties — and an antenna that can sense when one of the tags is removed from the area where the antenna is operating. When the shelf is out of products, someone could be alerted to restock with more. Not sure how many people are panic-buying ties right now, though.

Apple

Solar-powered gadgets

Apparently Apple is considering incorporating flexible photovoltaic cells — or solar cells — into its products. This patent outlines putting cells on the back of a charging case for a phone, or on the outer edge of a pair of headphones. It also lists just about every device you could think of, including phones, tablets, wearables, airplanes, cars and video game systems. This would be great for people who want to live off the grid, but still game.

Apple Watch add-ons

Apple is looking at ways to build extension devices for the Apple Watch, similar to how video game systems in the '90s had extensions you could plug in. This new patent outlines a device that could slide under the bottom of an Apple Watch and add functionality to the watch. The add-on could house additional sensors to extrapolate yet more health data from wearers or the world around them. The patent is thin on ideas of what those sensors could actually be, but one suggestion is an air-temperature thermometer. The add-on, which the patent adorably calls a "backpack," could also include an additional battery, which might be useful for people who'd like to use the watch to track their sleep — something Apple is apparently working on, but isn't feasible right now, given how often the watch needs to be charged.

Borderless screens

Apple likes to say in its iPhone marketing that its newer devices are "all screen," but that is not really true. There's a large cutout near the top and then a border all the way around. Now the company seems to be working on products where the front of the device truly is just a giant screen, and its approach is similar to what Samsung's been doing. The design includes curving the glass on the top of the phone around the edges, giving the impression that the entire front of the device is a solid piece of glass.

Facebook

Selfie karaoke!

Yet another helpful patent for these wild times. This patent outlines a video system where a person's face can be mapped onto a celebrity's in a music video, so you could look like Ariana Grande while singing "7 Rings" in your bathrobe alone in the living room. Unfortunately it doesn't look like the technology will make you sound like Ariana Grande, though.

Ear-rattling headphones

Facebook seems to be working on headphones that wrap around and inside your ear to deliver sound. This is similar to bone-conduction headphones, but instead of mildly vibrating your skull, these vibrate the cartilage in your ear. According to the patent, the setup has advantages over traditional earphones: they'd be smaller, take up less power, and have "less sound leakage," making them ideal for AR or mixed-reality glasses of the future. Assuming we go outside ever again and need such devices, that is.

Microsoft

Privacy in a world of smart glasses

When everyone has smart glasses that can record everyone else, how will there be any privacy? Well, there probably won't be much, but Microsoft has an idea for "a method to record video with a video camera while respecting bystander privacy." Microsoft's patent argues that with traditional video cameras, you know when you're being recorded, and can tell the person filming to stop. But when cameras are "integrated in eyewear, clothing or otherwise worn, a bystander may have no knowledge that he or she is being recorded and no opportunity to opt out." Microsoft's system could detect when someone is in the field-of-view of the smart glasses, and wouldn't film until the bystander confirmed that they're fine with being filmed.

App store laws, Microsoft AR and Square buys Tidal

Welcome to this weekend's Source Code podcast.

Cole Burston/Bloomberg

This week on the Source Code podcast: First, an update on Google's user-tracking change. Then, Ben Pimentel joins the show to discuss Square buying Tidal, and what it means for the fintech and music worlds. Later, Emily Birnbaum explains the bill moving through the Arizona legislature that has Google and Apple worried about the future of app stores. And finally, Janko Roettgers discusses Microsoft Mesh, the state of AR and VR headsets, and when we're all going to be doing meetings as holograms.

For more on the topics in this episode:

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. 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.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. 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. Email Issie.
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.

Protocol | Enterprise

Tony Bates hears the call at Genesys

Running a contact center company isn't as sexy as his previous gigs. But this company could be the best chance for him to make a lasting mark.

Tony Bates arrived at Genesys as CEO after hopscotching through various parts of the tech industry.

Photo: Genesys

Be careful what you wish for. For Tony Bates, that's been running a big tech company.

He rose to Cisco's top ranks but didn't get the No. 1 job. His big CEO break was at Skype when it was poised to go public — but months into that gig, Bates' venture backers sold it to Microsoft instead. After a stint at Microsoft, where some eyed Bates for the CEO job that went to Satya Nadella, he took over GoPro. There, he got cut in a round of layoffs as the camera company struggled. He joined Social Capital, which helped fund Slack and Box, for a gig that lasted a year before tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya blew up the venture capital firm he started.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@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.

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