On March 11th, a patent application from Apple Inc. (Cupertino, CA) was published by the U.S. Patent Office. The original application for this was made on September 8, 2008. Others analysts have interpreted this patent application as insight into Apple’s plans for picoprojectors. In this column I want to take the patent at its face value and look at the projector calibration techniques Apple is trying to patent.
The key to understanding the importance of any patent is in the patent claims. If your system contains all the elements in a granted patent, you cannot build your system without permission from the patent holder. The law normally does not require the patent holder to grant permission and when a company does, it normally involves license fees.
The six independent claims in the Apple patent application are extremely broad. For example, claim 1 reads:
“A method for calibrating a projection system, comprising: projecting an image using the projection system; obtaining sensor data of the projected image using an auxiliary device; transmitting the sensor data from the auxiliary device to the projection system; and calibrating the projection system based at least in part on the sensor data from the auxiliary device.”
This claim may be easier to understand if you reread it substituting “camera” for “auxiliary device.” This very broad claim includes many different projector calibration, blending and warping systems from multiple vendors that have been on the market for years. If this patent is granted to Apple, it would cover, for example, the projector calibration systems from Mersive or Scalable that Insight Media saw at InfoComm in June of 2007 and described in the July 2007 issue of Large Display Report (LDR). Another system from Christie that would be covered by this patent was described in the July 2008 issue of LDR. In the Christie system, the auxiliary device was a precision light meter and the colorimetry was being calibrated, not the geometry as in the Mersive or Scalable systems. I am sure there are other projector calibration systems in the LDR archives, these were just the first three I came across.
Click here for a complete copy of the Apple application, number 20100060803. It is possible that Apple actually has priority overMersive, Scalable, Christie or all of the other companies that have projector calibration products on the market and have had them for several years, but I doubt it. Mersive and Scalable were showing product in 2007, more than a year before the Apple application. We visited Scalable in 2006 and saw their system then.
Regardless of what company has priority, a patent must be applied for within one year of the public disclosure of an invention and typically the application is made before any public disclosure. Public disclosure means not just by the company applying for the patent, but disclosure of the invention by any company or individual anywhere in the world. Clearly, claim 1, where every element in the claim was publicly disclosed by Scalable and Mersive over a year before the Apple application, would not be valid. Clearly, that is, to my eyes: sometimes the U.S. Patent Office takes a very strange view of things and Apple can take an even stranger view.
In this column I have only looked at claim 1 but the application includes 32 claims. Some of these additional claims are much narrower. For example, claim 5 reads:
“The method of claim 1, wherein obtaining sensor data comprises obtaining position data of the auxiliary device.”
Was this additional element disclosed by Mersive or Scalable in 2007? Or perhaps by someone else prior to 2008? I don’t know, but any company with an interest in projector calibration, alignment, blending or warping should examine this complete application closely and see if they think they have priority rights over Apple. If warranted, they should then communicate their concerns to the U.S. Patent Office.
Matt Brennesholtz is an analyst at Insight Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org