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The Current State Of The VR/AR Patent Landscape

A comprehensive breakdown of the VR/AR patent process.

Virtual and artificial reality technologies are changing the world. In the very near future, virtual reality headsets are expected to significantly shift the way consumers work, experience entertainment, make purchases, and participate in social activities.

The rise of patent applications for VR/AR technologies signals the number of emerging opportunities for developers, coders, investors, and stakeholders in the 3D and 4D technology markets.

Microsoft HoloLens 2 patent. / Image Credit: The United States Patent and Trademark Office

WHAT IS A PATENT?

A patent is a federal grant of an exclusive right given to the inventor of an issued patent claim for a time period of up to twenty years. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) only grants patents after a rigorous, time-intensive, and thorough application review process.

The right conferred by a patent grant is “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or importing the invention into the US.

A valid patent bars protection for any subsequent independent invention by another even “more deserving” inventor, deeming the later inventor the infringer.

The USPTO has established five elements for patent eligibility: (1) The intention must be a process, machine, or object; (2) the invention must have utility; (3) the invention must be novel or new; (4) the invention must be non-obvious; and (5) the invention must not have been disclosed to the public before the patent application.

Patent for wireless PSVR technology. / Image Credit: Sony

There are three types of patents:

1. Utility Patents protect any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, the composition of matter, or any new and useful improvements to existing objects. These are the most common types of patents as they protect the functionality or methodology behind an invention.

2. Design Patents protect merely ornamental or aesthetic designs and only cover the way something looks. Revisions and alterations to simple inventions often fall under this category. For example, a design patent can cover a new specific curve on a pre-existing hairbrush.

3. Plant Patents protect new varieties, species, and cross-breeds of plants.

Since VR/AR software is inherently a method, it can be eligible for a utility patent if it meets the aforementioned USPTO requirements. To qualify, the subject-matter of the proposed patent application must cover a unique software invention that is either tied to the machine or that offers an identifiable improvement to society that humans can’t do alone.

Virtual reality patents protect virtual reality (VR), an artificial simulation of the real world that has been designed by computer programs. Augmented reality (AR) patents protect technological elements and pieces of data such as video, sound, and mapping technologies that enhance the real-world experience.

LATEST AND MOST PROMINENT VR/AR PATENT FILINGS

The sheer variety, scope, and amount of these patent applications are indicative of the transformational and vast nature of AR/VR technology itself.

Image courtesy of IPlytics

One of the major trends that patent activity has captured is the transformation from merely entertainment-based AR/VR usage towards more useful, inclusive, and practical applications.

Regarding inclusivity, on April 4, 2019, the USPTO published a new patent for Sony that was filed in December 2017. The patent is for people who wear glasses and have to take them off whenever they want to wear a VR headset. The patent claims describe a pair of VR glasses that can take prescription lenses and fit inside a VR headset comfortably. The glasses use eye-tracking sensors to gather “gaze information of the user in order to improve the quality of content provided for rendering on the head-mounted display.”

Regarding practicality, Lyft recently obtained a patent for a technology that utilizes digital information to help Lyft drivers locate their next pick-up. The data includes arrows for turn-by-turn navigation, 3D images to depict “drop-off/pick-up location” or “no drop-off/pick-up” zones, and customer feedback.

Most importantly, medical applications for virtual reality have begun emerging in the past few years. These consist of VR surgical simulators, telepresence surgery, complex medical database visualization, and rehabilitation data.

Glasses-friendly VR headset design. / Image Credit: Sony/USPTO

THE MAJOR PLAYERS

The highest number of VR and AR patents have been filed in the United States, followed by China and Europe. Over 55% of patents pertaining to AR/VR technologies were filed in the United States, signifying a US-dominant patent filing activity.

Microsoft, Intel, and Sony are the three strongest VR and AR-related patent owners. Other active participants in the augmented reality and virtual reality market include OculusVR, Nokia, Motorola Mobility Inc, and Apple.

CHALLENGES WITHIN THE VR/AR PATENT SECTOR

One challenge is the relatively young age of the technology. This leads to unanswered questions about where the technology may lead. As a result, many companies have filed several patents for VR/AR technologies to ensure that they don’t get left behind in the race towards research and development within the space.

These patent applications often come before a company decides whether they intend to use the patent application’s technology in a product or a design. Their goal is more of an insurance policy so that they can be on the safe side in case another company has a similar idea before they make their decision. This option, however attractive it may be, is only available for big companies with the resources to do so. The downside is that smaller companies and start-ups often lack a useful competitive edge.

In a dynamic technology sector such as this where you don’t know who else may be developing a similar technology, it’s also a risk to go to market right away with your product without first having patent protection. Patent protection can take up to a few years to obtain and the AR/VR market is so fast-moving that by the time you obtain protection, the technology rights may have been obtained or may no longer be effective.

The way to offset this challenge, says JD Houvener of Bold Patents, is to file quickly if you have an AR/VR technology you think your company will more likely than not implement in the future. If you take too long to file your patent application, you may lose your chance to make history.

About the Scout

Carly Klein

Carly Klein is a first-year law student at Loyola Law School. An LA native and a graduate from Boston University with a B.A. in Political Science & Philosophy, she seeks to pursue a career in civil litigation.

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