Apple is closing the gap to making full virtual reality a possibility. On July 24th 2012, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the company a patent for its groundbreaking 5 dimensional technology. The Invention will incorporate virtual reality gloves, next generation sensors and touch screens to better immerse a user.
The patent has a wide range of applications including interactive gaming, video conferencing and signature recognition. The touch technology might also be adopted into cars, allowing drivers the ability to start their car with their palm-print. This technology may even have military applications. In support of Apple’s boast that their touch-screens could be made up of anything, Apple used the example of a touch-screen made from Kevlar, which users could literally fire bullets at while a computer calculated the total range of the shot. According to the patent, screens may not even be necessary for a full 5 dimensional environment. The proposed sensors are said to be able to track changes to the air, such as the temperature. The patent application also indicates that the technology might be used as a replacement for keyboards.
This patent clearly represented a major leap forward in the field, with Patently Apple calling it “wild and crazy”. But despite the excitement surrounding the patent in recognition of its technological innovation, there are a few business related concerns.
With a host of applications along with a combination of next-generation touch technology, I am left wondering whether apple patented this invention too quickly. In the U.S., the term of patent is 20 years from the date of initial filing of the patent. The issue with this patent is that some of the claims have filing dates between 1999 and 2006 (prior to the release of the iPhone), with Apple refiling them for patent in 2009. Despite the period of protection of this patent being much less than 20 years, Apple doesn’t appear to be able to fully capitalize on the patent at this time. Even for a company as large and accomplished as Apple is the focus of the company has been primarily on mobile devices. For example, Apple sold 1.3 million Apple TV units in the 3rd quarter of 2012. This is compared with sales of 17 million iPads, 26 million iPhones and 6.8 million iPods during that same quarter. It is no wonder than that CEO of Apple Tim Cook said that Apple’s TV empire was just a “hobby”. With one of the most obvious applications for this patent being in the television industry, it’s uncertain whether Apple wants to put the resources into developing their own 5 dimensional equivalent to the television.
Apart from Apple being prepared to capitalize on the market, it’s also unclear as to whether the market is prepared for a 5 dimensional product. The sales of 3 dimensional TVs has been underwhelming according to Samsung, representing only 30% market share in 2012 compared to 2D TVs. Despite the fact that sales are growing, consumers simply haven’t seen the need to upgrade yet. With the current level of scepticism towards 3-D home entertainment, how can Apple hope to make the best use of this new patent?
That is not to say however, that Apple won’t make money as a result of this patent. The development is still a major improvement over the current technology with a multitude of applications. As a patent, however, Apple may not be in a position to capitalize on this investment for many years to come.
Adam Stevenson is a JD candidate at Western University, Faculty of Law.