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Open Wide and Say "Selfie!"

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The companies after your eyes, your ears, and your heart.

Hello and welcome to Patent Drop, presented by The Daily Upside! Think of us as TDU’s cousin who can’t stop talking about what’s happening in Big Tech. 

Today’s theme: From your eye movements to your breathing, companies are keeping track of your body. We’re diving into Amazon’s tightening grip on the telemedicine sector, Apple and Google’s new years fitness goals, and Zoom’s plan to force its users to make eye contact with each other. Let’s get into it. 

#1. Amazon: Strike a pose and open wide 

Amazon wants to know what hurts. The e-commerce giant filed a patent for telehealth tech that will help doctors get better photos of patients’ conditions

Essentially, patients would be given automated instructions of exactly what to take photos of, how to take them, and send them to their doctor, giving them consistent images for analysis. For example, if a doctor wanted a photo of the back of your throat, Amazon’s system would give users both reference images and audible instructions on precisely what angle the user needs to take them from, as they take it. 

“Existing telemedicine systems provide limited feedback to the patient capturing the image,” Amazon said in its application. “This leads to frustrating telemedicine experiences for both the patient and the doctor and can potentially lead to misdiagnoses and other mistakes.”

Amazon has been quickly growing its foothold in healthcare over the past few years. In late 2019 it opened Amazon Care, its in-house service offering in-person doctors’ visits, followed by the launch of Amazon Pharmacy in late 2020. Though it shuttered Amazon Care last August, its $3.9 billion acquisition of One Medical, a primary care provider with more than 750,000 customers, will more than make up for it (if it can make it through regulatory hurdles). 

The trouble comes with balancing telehealth and in-person offerings, Cornelio Ash, equity analyst at William O’Neil, told me. Though telehealth exploded in the early days of the pandemic, putting all of your eggs in one basket has proven to not work, Ash said. Take the merger between virtual healthcare provider Teladoc and digital health management firm Livongo as an example: After an $18 billion deal in 2020, the company has taken billions in impairment charges and losses.

“The best fit is going to be a combination of in-person hospital care and telehealth,” Ash said. “It’s not going to just be virtual. Because other players in the market have made that mistake.”

The other problem: privacy concerns. Whether it be your health records logged with One Medical or the photo you took for your doctor of that mysterious rash on your leg, Amazon could have quite a lot of data about your body. Federal law restricts Amazon from using patient data outside of One Medical contexts, but with the company’s laundry list of privacy scandals from its other businesses, it may be met with some degree of skepticism. 

#2. Zoom and Microsoft: All eyes on you

Nearly three years into WFH becoming the norm, video calls can still be awkward: Where are you supposed to look? At the camera, to make it look like you’re making eye contact even though you’re just staring at a little black dot? Or at the people on the screen, seemingly averting your gaze downward? 

Zoom is trying to solve the awkwardness. The company filed a patent for tech that aims to increase eye contact among users by creating a draggable “active pane” in video calls (or one which shows the person that’s talking) which can be placed near the top or bottom of the screen, depending on where a user’s camera is. The purpose, the company said, is to make it look like participants aren’t “staring off into space” during important conversations.  

Meanwhile, Microsoft is trying to solve the same issue in a different way. The company filed a patent for tech which applies “gaze adjustment techniques” to people in video conferences. These would track and modify the “eyes, head pose, and upper body portion” of a user to “introduce non-verbal communications that are typically lost in video conferencing application.” In layman’s terms, it organizes the screen for the speaker to make it look like all of the participants are looking at you, and puts up an “off screen” bubble over your face if it can tell that you’re looking away.