NextVR: Building a Patent Portfolio

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In the past year, virtual reality broadcasting startup, NextVR, has been a frequent topic in the media for its impressive media deals and ability to raise funds.  Earlier this month, NextVR closed an $80
million
Series B round of funding, with an eye towards expanding into Asian markets where demand for virtual reality content is growing.  Continuing on with its global push, it was also recently announced that, in conjunction with FOX Sports, NextVR would present the opening football match of the 2016/2017 Bundesliga season in virtual reality.

Less reported, however, is the fact that NextVR is quietly building a patent portfolio for encoding, streaming and displaying 360 video.  Last week, six new patent applications were published having NextVR as the assignee.  According to our search of FPO, NextVR has 32 worldwide patents and patent applications.  (By comparison, Oculus has 42.)

NextVR patent fig 14The majority of NextVR’s patent applications, published on August 18, are directed to methods and apparatus for using “selective resolution reduction on images to be transmitted and/or used by a playback device.”  These applications appear to cover methods and devices for downsampling video content using texture maps and mesh models before presenting the video content on a HMD.  As the application explains, “reducing the resolution of images which are less likely to be viewed while maintaining the resolution of portions of images corresponding to an environment which are likely to be viewed, it is possible to make efficient use of limited bandwidth available for streaming image data to a playback device.”

While downsampling video is certainly not a new technology, the novelty of NextVR’s invention appears to relate to the use of texture (or “UV maps”), which are stored on the server and sent to the (HMD-connected) client ahead of the image data.  The application describes “different UV maps in combination with selective resolution reduction can be used to allocate different amounts of resolution to different portions of an image of an environment depending on which portion of the environment is considered important at a given point in time while the same environmental model is used despite the different allocations of resolution.”  Another interesting aspect of the technology, as described in the application, is that “the data rate used for transmitting images can be held relatively constant since the number of pixels in the images can remain the same with the UV map controlling the allocation of pixels to portions of the environment.”

NextVR’s recently published patent applications can be viewed here.

DirecTV Files Patent Application for Viewing “Set Top Box Content” on a Virtual Reality Device

The_DirecTV_logoLast week, the USPTO published DirecTV’s patent application for delivering “set top box content” to a virtual reality display device.  This appears to be one of the first published patent applications by a major MVPD (“multichannel video programming distributor”), and could signal that the industry is ready to push their VR chips onto the table.

DirecTV’s patent application describes transmitting a live linear television signal to a user receiving device (e.g., a set top box), which then renders the signal and transmits it to a client device (e.g., smart phone).  The client device includes a virtual reality application, which then scales the signal for display on a virtual reality device (e.g., Oculus Rift).

DirecTV patent app fig 1

Thus far, the big players in traditional (cable, satellite) video content distribution, or MVPDs (“multichannel video programming distributors”), have been relatively quiet with respect to virtual reality technology.  As seen below, most VR-related announcements by MVPDs have pertained to investments or acquisitions in studios, like NextVR.  Moreover, a recent survey of 628 entertainment and media companies showed that at least 30% of the industry considered virtual reality “a non-starter, like 3DTV.”

Non-traditional content distributors have been somewhat more forward thinking.  For example, in March, Hulu announced it would begin streaming content to Samsung Gear devices. Netflix also released a 360 promotional video last week in conjunction with its popular series, “Stranger Things.”

Top Ten MVPDs VR

Sony Files Shocking Patent Application for Monitoring and Counteracting Motion Sickness

Nausea.  Retching.  Headaches.  All-too-familiar symptoms for those unfortunate individuals who have experienced “virtual reality sickness” (and also, for those who have been to a Kenny G concert).  Often compared to motion sickness, or kinetosis, the condition can arise in a user when there is a disagreement between “visually perceived” movement and the vestibular system’s sense of movement.  In short, it is a major challenge for VR content developers, and also one of the reasons why several HMD companies have recommended that games run at a minimum of 90 FPS.

To deal with this problem, Sony has filed a patent application entitled132 “Motion Sickness Monitoring and Application of Supplemental Sound to Counteract Sickness.”  The patent application was originally filed on February 5, 2015 and published today.  To detect motion sickness, the application describes monitoring a user’s body motion, pupil motion, gaze, head motion, balance, or “by tracking facial expressions of the user that may indicate motion sickness (e.g., a gagging motion, sticking out the tongue, etc.).”

When motion sickneSony AMS FIG 2ss is detected, the system takes action by delivering “supplemental sound,” reducing the intensity of the game or vibrating the headset.  Sony’s application claims that supplemental sound has a therapeutic effect, and in particular, describes a system to deliver “bone conduction audio” by transmitting audible or ultrasonic sound waves through a portion of a user’s skull close to the ear.  These vibrations can be generated by a device incorporated into the strap of the HMD.

Sony’s application goes on to describe further embodiments for battling motion sickness including transmitting microwaves that are “safe for the inner ear,” infrared stimulation and “small electric shocks.”

The use of vestibular stimulation is a known technique to battle motion sickness in virtual reality environments (over fifteen years old), and some parties have already obtained patents for it. (See here and here.)  However, it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if Sony can eventually introduce this technology into its commercial PSVR headsets.  Until then, VR users will just have to keep a case of ginger ale handy.

 

SUPER SMASH BROS VR EDITION: An Update on ZeniMax v. Oculus

zenimax v. oculus title

The legal battle between two heavyweights over the Oculus Rift continues between ZeniMax Media and id Software, in one corner, and Oculus and Facebook, in the other.  In a court filing this week, the two sides reportedly failed to reach a resolution in a recent court-ordered mediation.

The lawsuit also made headlines in December 2015 when Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was ordered to sit for a deposition in the case.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, I’ve provided a summary below.  (I also recommend reading the complaint, a lengthy, but fascinating read for those interested in the VR industry.)

In May 2014, ZeniMax Media, parent company of id Software and Bethesda Softworks, filed suit in a federal court in Texas, asserting claims of trade secret misappropriation, copyright infringement, breach of contract, unfair competition, unjust enrichment, trademark infringement and false designation against Oculus and Palmer Luckey.  (Zenimax has since amended its complaint to add Facebook and John Carmack as defendants.)

In its complaint, ZeniMax alleged that, in 2012, Luckey approached John Carmack (then, an iD software employee) about a Rift prototype, which Carmack offered to help improve.  Subsequently, Carmack and other ZeniMax employees allegedly “transformed” the Rift prototype by adding positional tracking, reducing latency and making other significant improvements.  (According to Facebook, the improvements to the Rift amounted to “hot-gluing” a motion sensor previously purchased from Hillcrest, “placing tape on the outside edges of the lenses, attaching a strap, and plugging the headset into an external power source.”)

Before revealing the improved Rift prototype — and at ZeniMax’s request — Luckey executed an NDA, which stated that ZeniMax would retain exclusive ownership of the IP disclosed under the agreement.  (Facebook has since denied that the NDA is valid or enforceable.)  Carmack later demonstrated the enhanced Rift prototype at E3 in 2012, which resulted in significant attention and acclaim regarding the HMD.

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After a successful E3, Luckey and Oculus allegedly continued to seek out Carmack’s expertise, but ignored ZeniMax’s overtures regarding compensation for its IP. Moreover, Oculus and Luckey allegedly demonstrated the Rift prototype using ZeniMax’s properties (Doom 3: BFG Edition and RAGE) against ZeniMax’s wishes.  In addition, Oculus later solicited and hired away several ZeniMax employees, including Carmack, who became CTO of Oculus.  According to ZeniMax, Oculus has never paid a dime to Zenimax.

In March 2014, Facebook announced that it would acquire Oculus for $2 billion in cash and stock.  Two months later, Zenimax filed its lawsuit.

Perhaps on a related note, earlier this year at E3, Bethesda, ZeniMax’s subsidiary, announced that it was developing virtual reality versions of its blockbuster AAA titles, Fallout 4 and Doom, which, unsurprisingly, would be released on the HTC Vive.

The jury trial in the ZeniMax v. Oculus case is scheduled to begin on Monday, January 9, 2017.

BMW v. TurboSquid: Virtual Patent Infringement?

The blog, Protecting Designs, reported an interesting case filed last month that may have legal ramifications to the burgeoning VR industry:  BMW v. TurboSquid, Inc.

The issue:  Can selling a digital 3D model of a car, which exists only in virtual reality, infringe a design patent?

According to Wikipedia,

TurboSquidTurboSquid is a digital media company that sells stock 3D models used in 3D graphics to a variety of industries, including computer games, architecture, and interactive training. The company, headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States, is most known for brokering the sale of 3D models in return for a percentage of the sales. As of 2014, TurboSquid had over 370,000 3D models in its library, making it the largest library of 3D models for sale in the world.

TurboSquid’s website lists Sony Pictures, Activision and Pixar as a few of their clients.

On May 3, 2016, BMW filed a complaint in a federal district court in New Jersey alleging, among other claims, that TurboSquid’s 3D models of certain vehicles infringe BMW’s design patents.  In particular, BMW alleges that TurboSquid is “marketing 3-D virtual models of vehicles that infringe the BMW trademarks, trade dress, and design patents.  [TurboSquid] markets and tags BMW-trademarked 3-D virtual models of BMW vehicles as suitable for games.”

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Image from U.S. Patent No. D664,896

BMW’s design patents (D473,165, D639,209, D664,896, D714,190, D714,687, and D724,495) are directed to BMW, Mini, and Rolls-Royce branded vehicles produced by BMW Group. The ’165 patent is titled “Surface configuration of a vehicle, toy and miscellaneous consumer products incorporating the design,” and the other patents are each titled “Vehicle, toy, and/or replicas thereof.” BMW have also asserted trademark infringement claims against TurboSquid and is seeking injunctive relief, disgorgement of all of TurboSquid’s profits under 35 U.S.C. Section 289, attorneys’ fees and other remedies.

 

It remains to be seen whether “virtual” objects can infringe a design patent (or perhaps in a future case, utility patents).

For more analysis on the trademark claims, Patently-O had an interesting write-up which can be accessed here.

In the News: Magic Leap

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The secretive startup company, Magic Leap, made headlines recently with two stories of note.  First, as reported last week by UploadVR, Magic Leap is suing two former employees in federal court for trade secret misappropriation.  Magic Leap’s complaint alleges that Gary Bradski (Senior Vice President of Advanced Perception and Intelligence) and Adrian Kaehler (Vice President of Special Projects)  worked together for at least a year, while employed by Magic Leap, to create and develop plans for a new company using “Magic Leap’s intellectual property and Proprietary Technologies” in violation of their various employment agreements.  According to the complaint, while at Magic Leap, Bradski was involved in projects that involved “deep learning techniques for robots,” and that Kaehler was “responsible for the definition and development of technologies of certain projects, as well as the technical vision, staffing, budget, and ultimate implementation of such projects.”  The complaint further alleges that Bradski “disclosed Magic Leap’s confidential information and trade secrets to third parties and specifically misrepresented to third parties that such confidential and trade secret information did not belong to Magic Leap.”

Magic Leap’s complaint is noteworthy in that it asserts trade secret misappropriation claims under the new federal Defense of Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA“), which was signed into law by President Obama only a few weeks prior to the filing of this suit.

Although the details of the allegations are somewhat vague at this point, more information will likely come to light soon.  Because the complaint also asserts trade secret misappropriation claims under California state law, Magic Leap must identify the trade secrets which were allegedly misappropriated with reasonable particularity pursuant to Section 2019.210 of the California Code of Civil Procedure.

magic leap-2In less contentious news, it was also reported in the past few days that the USPTO had issued a design patent, US D758,367, to Magic Leap for a Virtual Reality Headset.  The design patent contains eight drawings (one of which is shown to the left) and was filed on May 14, 2015.

However, Magic Leap’s VP of public relations, Andy Fouché, provided the following somewhat definitive statement to Tech Insider regarding the patent’s images:

“This is part of our R&D and experience validation, and is not at all representative of what our product will look like. Items that any company patents can be helpful to the entire process, regardless if they end up pursuing that path or not.”

So it appears that Magic Leap’s product will continue to remain a secret for now.

 

 

Sony’s HMD Patent Application

Earlier this year, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony announced that its virtual reality headset for the PS4 would launch in October 2016.  At GDC, Sony also demonstrated the social aspect of its VR systems, in which multiple players interacted with each other in a virtual reality environment.

Sony 163 Appl FIG 11

Last week, on May 12, the USPTO published Sony’s patent application, Sony Computer Entertainment’s U.S. Patent Appl. No. 14/996,163 (the ‘163 application).  The ‘163 application is simply entitled “Head Mounted Display,” claims priority to a provision filed in June 9, 2013.  The “inventive concept” of the claims here appears to be rendering a player’s hands into the virtual reality scene, as shown below in claim 17 (emphasis added).

17.    A method for operating a head mounted display (HMD), comprising,

providing the HMD having a head attachment portion and a viewing module coupled to the head attachment portion, the viewing module including an inner side having a view port into a screen configuring for rendering a virtual reality scene, and an exterior housing;

providing a communications module for exchanging data with a computer system, the computer system is configured to generate the virtual reality scene for the screen;

providing a depth camera integrated into the viewing module and oriented to capture depth data of an envrionment in front of the exterior housing; and

processing, by the computer system, the depth data captured by the depth camera to identify hands of a user wearing the HMD in the environment, wherein the hands are rendered into the virtual reality scene, the hands being tracked such that movements of the hands appear as movements of virtual hands extending into the virtual reality scene.

As evident from the claims, the rendering of the virtual hands relies upon data captured by a depth camera located on the HMD.  This is interesting because the depth camera appears to be technology that Sony developed as early as 2011 in response to Microsoft’s Kinect technology.  More information about Sony’s depth camera can be found here and here.