PatentNext Abstract: Patents related to virtual reality (VR) are expected to increase with the appearance of the metaverse. Since VR is fundamentally a software technology, how do courts review VR-related patents? Early cases show courts will apply similar scrutiny to other software-related technologies, where VR-related patents will need to meet current standards for patent eligibility, for example showing an “improvement” in the technology underlying computing.
The “metaverse” is a vast online world that can be experienced through multiple technology platforms – from the screen of a mobile device to the lens of a virtual reality (VR) system. VR systems typically include 3D software that controls a VR device, such as a VR headset. A popular example of a VR headset is the Oculus series of headsets provided by Reality Labs and its parent company Meta Platforms.
Patenting of VR technology
Since VR is fundamentally a software technology, how do courts analyze VR-related patents? With respect to other software technologies, virtual reality patents are expected to meet current patent eligibility standards required under 35 USC § 101 and pursuant to the US Supreme Court’s decision united in
Alice Corp. against CLS Bank International.
See Are software inventions patentable?
One way is to claim that a VR invention provides an “improvement” to the underlying technology over the prior art. See How to patent software inventions: display an “improvement”. The case example below explores how demonstrating an “improvement” can overcome a patent eligibility challenge for a VR-related patent.
Example of a patent case involving VR technology
Early cases show that courts will apply a similar review for VR-related patents as for other software-related technologies, where VR-related patents will have to meet current standards for patent eligibility, for example in showing an “improvement” in the underlying computer technology.
In one example case, AR Design Innovations LLC (“AR Design”) asserted a virtual reality-related patent against several furniture manufacturers, including Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc. (“Ashley”), La-Z-Boy Incorporated (“La-Z-Boy”), and Ethan Allen Interiors, Inc. (“Ethen Allen”) (collectively the “Defendants”). The cases were ultimately consolidated into one action.
See AR Design Innovations LLC v. Ashley Furniture Indus., Inc., 4:20-cv-392 (ED Tex. filed May 12, 2020).
The patent holder, AR Design, had claimed the US patent. No. 7,277,572 (the “‘572 Patent”) entitled “Three-Dimensional Interior Design System”. The ‘572 patent describes a “software application configured to reside on a client computer, which is capable of manipulating in-situ 3D object representations with a selected or user-generated interior design scene, and rendering Photographic quality perspective images of the composite scene. ‘572 Patent at 1:8-13.
The defendants (the furniture makers) had each developed mobile software applications that allowed customers to generate and render photorealistic 3D objects (eg, furniture) in a 3D scene (eg, a room). A user can rearrange or modify objects and scenes in real time.
The patent owner, AR Design, alleged that the defendants’ respective software infringes at least claim 1 of the ‘572 patent.
Claim 1 described a virtual reality-related invention involving a client-server computing environment for rendering 3D scenes:
- A method in a client-server computing environment for generating and rendering a photorealistic three-dimensional (3D) perspective view of a 3D object selectively positioned in a 3D scene, the method comprising:
(a) access a server in communication with a client;
(b) working with the client, a client application configured for scene editing and rendering, including a graphical user interface (GUI);
(c) display a 3D scene with the GUI;
(d) configuring the 3D scene to be selectively displayed in a plurality of views;
(e) retrieve at least one 3D object from the server;
(f) importing the 3D object into the 3D scene to generate a composite;
(g) manipulate the 3D object in the composite for placement and orientation;
(h) render a 3D image of the composite at the customer;
(i) selectively reconfiguring the 3D image in real time;
(j) applying brightness characteristics to the 3D image; and
(k) render, with the client application, a photorealistic 3D view of the composite image, including light characteristics.
Claim 1 covers an embodiment allowing manufacturers and sellers of furniture to “display their products”. ‘572 Patent at 7:1-2. In particular, the embodiment allows end users to view a manufacturer’s products in full, realistic 3D with the ability to modify the texture (textile coating, finish, etc.) of the product” and “may allow a manufacturer furniture to display its sofas or chairs covered with all the different materials they offer.” Identifier. at 7:2-7.
Figure 28 of the ‘572 patent depicts an exemplary embodiment as a high resolution rendering of a 3D “furniture object” (a bed) positioned in a virtual environment (a bedroom):
At the outset of the case, the defendants filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the case.
In particular, defendants alleged that claim 1 of the ‘572 patent was ineligible under 35 USC § 101 because it was “directed to” an abstract idea – specifically, the abstract idea of ”recovering , manipulating and displaying three-dimensional objects in space”, which was “just a long-standing, well-known practice commonly used by modellers, students building dioramas, architects and even filmmakers”. Augmented Reality Design Innovations, 4:20-cv-392, Same. op. and ordinance (Dkt. 78), leaf op. at 3 (ED Tex. filed May 12, 2020).
Defendants specifically argued that claim 1 of the ‘572 patent was analogous to the long-standing human practice of making models or constructing dioramas (i.e. miniature scenes reproduced in three dimensions by placing figures in front of a painted background). Identifier. at 18 years old.
The patent holder, AR Design, rebutted that claim 1 was instead directed to a software tool that defined 3D objects in 3D scenes and provided a improvement by enabling the application of luminosity characteristics to the scene and real-time manipulation of 3D objects on client devices via an easy-to-use graphical user interface. Identifier.
The court agreed with AR Design. Court says claim 1 of ‘572 patent was “directed to”
specific improvements handling and appearance of 3D scenes and objects, including light characteristics. Identifier. at 17. The ‘572 specification explained that the claimed invention improves the speed at which such scenes and objects can be rendered and edited. Thus, because claim 1 was about the “speed” and “user-friendliness” of the underlying system, it could not be abstract (and, therefore, could not be patentable).
The court further noted that defendants’ characterization of AR Design’s claims as a well-known “diorama” technique was overly simplistic and did not capture the essence of AR Design’s claimed invention.
Identifier. at 18 years old.
Instead, the court noted that it discerned “no difference between improvements to a tool such as a hammer or saw that makes building dioramas faster and easier and a patent on specific improvements. to a tool such as the software at issue that makes digital 3D modeling faster and easier.” Identifier.
Accordingly, the court dismissed the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Identifier. at 19. Each of the defendants then settled their respective cases.
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