Will Head Mounted Augmented Reality be the Next Disruptive Technology?

Envision IP takes a look at the emerging Head-Mounted Display (HMD) and Augmented Reality (AR) technology space and finds that while Google leads the pack, its competitors have been working on their own visions of the future.

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Maulin V. Shah

September 13, 2012

With the recent unveiling of Apple’s iPhone 5, many analysts and consumers are speculating on what will be the next industry-changing technology.The Wall Street Journal reported last Tuesday on Google’s new wearable Internet-enabled glasses, which include a heads-up display that reportedly operate much like a wearable smartphone.

Envision IP reviewed Google’s US patent portfolio to determine how the company has been patenting various aspects of its head-mounted display (HMD) and augmented reality (AR) technologies.  Google currently has 36 issued US patents, and 4 pending US patent applications related to this exciting technology.  Its issued patents include 10 design patents for eyeglass-like devices, as well as patents covering gaze-tracking, point-of-view, and eye-tracking based cursor movement and selection, as well as multi-mode inputs for HMDs that incorporate hand, finger, and head movements.

Not surprisingly, Google’s technology giant counterparts Microsoft and IBM also have relatively large US patent portfolios which cover HMD and AR technologies, with 53 and 41 US patents, respectively, in these areas.

Canon, traditionally focused on imaging and optical products such as cameras, photocopiers, and printers, also has 58 US patents covering HMD and AR technologies.

The patents owned by Microsoft, IBM, and Canon in this space appear to be more fundamental to core hardware technology than Google’s patents; that is they cover general aspects of HMD such as lenses, optical hardware, and digital processing technology.

Microsoft, IBM, and Canon began filing US patent applications in this space as early as 1999, while Google began filing US patent applications in this space in 2010*.

Google’s patents appear to be improvements on existing technology, focusing on the usability and input aspects of HMD and AR, as well as their integration with Internet and multimedia features.

For example, Google’s US 8,235,529 is directed to unlocking a HMD screen using eye tracking technology.  The patent recognizes that each user has a unique spatial-temporal eye movement pattern, and the device is unlocked when a wearer’s specific pattern is recognized, as shown in Figure 6 of ’529 below.  Google goes beyond simply using eye movements to perform functions on the HMD, and leverages unique eye patterns to provide biometric access features.

Another Google patent, US 8,184,070, describes a HMD that selects an appropriate interface layout based on the user’s activity.  Accelerometers are used to detect the HMD orientation.  If the wearer is traveling upstairs or downstairs, the display is automatically positioned to optimize the wearer’s experience, as shown in Figures 5b and 5c of ’070 below.  This patent is a clear improvement over prior art patents that simply provide fixed display interfaces that are not adaptive.

While Google seems to have made great strides at patenting its HMD and AR technologies, it may not be alone among its close competitors.  For example, Apple, Samsung, LG, Sony, Nokia, and Panasonic also own smaller sized US patent portfolios in this area.

Considering that the smartphone and mobile computing market is continually evolving, Microsoft, IBM, and Canon may be positioned well to license, sell, or even enforce their patents in the future as HMD and AR devices are introduced into the marketplace.

*Patent applications are made publicly available 18 months after they are filed at the USPTO. Thus, the above commentary does not take into account any patent application filings at the USPTO by Google or others within the last 18 months.

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