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January 07, 2022

It seems like yesterday's "Lumos" phone trick was a hit, based on my email and Twitter mentions. But I did mention learning another tech Easter egg. So try this: Google the word "askew."

Today's newsletter is 1,148 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: CES 2022 brought pieces of the metaverse into view

Illustration of a crystal ball featuring a man in a VR headset.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The grand metaverse that tech enthusiasts talked up last year remains a distant goal for the industry, but this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showed off a few of its building blocks as they begin to materialize.

Why it matters: The full vision of a shared, 3D digital dimension a la "Ready Player One" is probably still a decade away — but it won't arrive out of nowhere in one piece. Instead, it will show up in bits and chunks, clunky and disjointed, before coalescing into something both functional and useful.

  • Unless, of course, all this turns out to be another false start for a VR industry that has been promising us one metaverse or another for three decades now.

Here are notable examples of CES' steps toward a metaverse:

Be smart: Most visions of a metaverse imagine an immersive digital space shared by many companies and individuals. Meta's Andrew Bosworth has described it as the embodied internet.

  • While some of the needed technology is available today, breakthroughs are still needed in display technology, miniaturization, battery life and headsets.
  • The broader idea of a single, interoperable metaverse where you can easily move, and take your stuff, from one company's turf to the next remains theoretical. Many firms have pledged to support that goal but few have begun working it into their plans.

Yes, but: There was also a lot of just plain buzz and hype, applying the word "metaverse" to anything remotely related to virtual or augmented reality.

  • Many CES observers suggested a drinking game in which keynote watchers took a shot every time the metaverse was mentioned — but that would have been a recipe for alcohol poisoning.
  • This Twitter thread collected photos chronicling CES abuses of the metaverse label.

2. On the ground at CES

A photo of a near-empty Chandelier Bar. It's usually packed during CES with tech industry wheelers and dealers.
The Cosmopolitan's near-empty Chandelier Bar. It's usually packed during CES with tech industry wheelers and dealers. Photo: Sara Fischer/Axios

While Axios largely covered CES remotely this year, media reporter Sara Fischer did attend on Thursday to take part in a panel. She says the usually massive show felt more like a "ghost town."

Why it matters: For better or worse (and possibly both), CES is going to be a test case for whether and how large trade shows can proceed amid COVID-19.

A few other thoughts from Sara:

  • Typically crowded restaurants and bars were empty. While it's normally impossible to make dining reservations at CES, every restaurant had plenty of room.
  • The Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan, typically a watering hole for media and tech insiders, was empty the two times she walked past it. 
  • The people she spoke to — many of them CES lifers — said it felt as though there were about a third of the 150,000 or so people that are usually there.
  • As for the tech itself, health tech and car tech seemed to be significantly more represented than in past years.

3. Regulator: Google infringed on Sonos patents

The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled Thursday that some of Google's home audio products infringe on several patents held by Sonos.

Why it matters: The ITC has the power to ban imports of goods found to violate other companies' patents.

Yes, but: Rather than face a ban or pay damages, companies can redesign their products to avoid infringement, and that is what Google says it has done.

  • "While we disagree with today's decision, we appreciate that the International Trade Commission has approved our modified designs and we do not expect any impact to our ability to import or sell our products," a Google representative said in a statement to Axios.

A Nest community web page lists some of the software changes Google has made to avoid the features that the trade court found to be infringing.

The other side: Sonos called the ruling an "across-the-board win" and said that Google's software changes don't solve broader intellectual property issues.

  • "While Google may sacrifice consumer experience in an attempt to circumvent this importation ban, its products will still infringe many dozens of Sonos patents, its wrongdoing will persist, and the damages owed Sonos will continue to accrue."

4. Measuring how trees mess with 5G

An illustration of a wireless signal growing out of a tree
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

It's been long known that trees can slow down some 5G signals. A recent federal study aims to figure out just how much, in order to create more accurate signal strength prediction models, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: 5G has the potential to supercharge wireless networks, but its rollout has revealed a range of complex challenges.

What they found: Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology measured the strength of signals that rely on the high-frequency millimeter-wave spectrum through different types of trees during different seasons of the year.

  • Researchers have known that obstacles like foliage or even rain could reduce millimeter wave signal strength, but the NIST team wanted to more precisely measure the impact trees have.
  • The researchers conducted measurements on seven types of trees at their campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
  • As expected, the leafier the tree, the more strength the signal lost, Nada Golmie, chief of NIST’s Wireless Networks Division in the Communications Technology Laboratory, told Axios.

What they're saying: "By providing measurements, and methods to measure, we're enabling others to more accurately, precisely assess the loss so that it can be overcome," Golmie said. "We believe it can be overcome."

The big picture: Verizon already uses millimeter wave spectrum for some of its 5G services, but both it and AT&T plan to use airwaves at a lower frequency known as the C-band to expand 5G service.

  • Spectrum at that lower frequency can better penetrate obstacles, but the C-band comes with its own set of controversies amid concerns from the aviation industry about potential interference.

5. Take note

On Tap

  • CES wraps up in Las Vegas.

Trading Places

  • Figma is adding former Cisco CFO Kelly Kramer to its board of directors.


6. After you Login

Speaking of trees, I've often looked at fallen leaves and thought they would look cool dried. But I must say, it never occurred to me to crochet them. (For one thing, I don't crochet.)