The patent issued to Apple earlier this week was U.S. Patent No. 7,874,021, which is titled “High tactility glove system.” Don’t let the title fool you though. I turned to the patent to see what kind of high-tech glove gadgetry Apple had come up with and to my surprise what was invented was a glove with openings at the top of the index finger, middle finger and thumb so as to allow skin to actually be able to touch the screen of your iPhone, iPad or iPod.
According to the Background of the Invention, portable electronic devices have become ubiquitous. Indeed, users can in socially acceptable ways operate electronic devices at virtually any time and place. Some users may even want to operate such devices in cold conditions while wearing warm, often thick, clothing to protect themselves from the cold. Unfortunately, as the patent explains, “when users wear gloves, operating the electronic device may become difficult.”
Apple goes on to explains:
Input mechanisms on some electronic devices may require precise manipulation to perform electronic device operations. In some embodiments, some input mechanisms may only recognize inputs provided by a finger placed directly or near proximity on the input mechanisms. When users, in cold weather, wear thick or bulky gloves, some electronic devices may therefore be unable to recognize or identify user interactions with the input mechanism. The loss of tactile feedback to the user may prevent the user from properly operating the electronic device, and may lead to frustration. Alternatively, if the user has to remove his gloves to operate the electronic device, the user’s hand may become cold and uncomfortable, which may also lead to user frustration.
Accordingly, there is a need for a glove system with which a user may provide inputs to the input mechanism of an electronic device to direct the electronic device to perform operations.
Thankfully, a pair of Apple inventors have come to the rescue. The patented glove, allows users to operate an electronic device by peeling back the outer shell such that the liner may extend through the aperture in the outer shell. We are, however, getting ahead of ourselves just a little bit here. First, take a look at the Fig. 3 in the patent (shown left). Reference numeral 302 points to what the patent refers to as “the liner.” The liner surrounds the finger such that when the finger protrudes through the opening the finger will not be nakedly exposed to the elements.
The trick then seems to be picking a liner that will allow the user to interact with the screen of an iPhone, iPad or iPod. Otherwise the user would still have to take off the glove to operate the device. The patent explains (with reference numerals removed):
The material selected for liner may include attributes effective to operate particular input mechanisms. In some embodiments, liner may be manufactured from a material that provides high tactile feedback for the user when operating an electronic device. For example, liner may be manufactured from a thin fabric material (e.g., cotton, wool, linen, silk or synthetic fabric). As another example, liner may be manufactured from latex, vinyl, rubber, neoprene, or any other suitable flexible material. In some embodiments, liner may include material providing high tactile feedback only at portions of liner that may come into contact with an input mechanism… In some embodiments, the liner for only one hand of a pair of gloves may include material that provides high tactile feedback…
In some embodiments, liner may be constructed from a material having low thermal conductivity. For example, liner may be constructed from a material that retains heat around the user’s hand and does not allow heat generated to dissipate when the liner is exposed. Suitable materials may include, for example, cork, rubber, polystyrene, silica aerogel, plastic, polymers, or any other suitable material. In some embodiments, the material may be provided in the form of a fabric to provide high tactile feedback. For example, the material may include a polymer fabric with thin portions… The thermal conductivity of liner may provide a user with an anti-sticky feel when using the input mechanism… because of the lack of sweat-induced moisture.
Call me cynical, but will a rubber or neoprene liner actually work? Can you slide your finger across the screen of an iPhone, for example, with a rubber glove?
In any event, Fig. 4 of the patent (shown left) shows the scrunched up glove finger with the finger of the user protruding yet still protected by the liner, shown as 302 in this illustration. The user may cause liner to protrude through aperture 322 using any suitable approach. For example, the user may use the opposing hand to peel back the portions of outer shell 304 adjacent to aperture 322, stretch ring 320, and allow liner 302 to extend past outer shell 304. So as to presumably cover all possible ways a user could expose the finger, the patent explains that it is possible for a user to peel back the outer shell 304 with one hand alone. Call me crazy, but I just can’t visualize it. Anyway, the patent explains this is possible “by forcing it in between two other fingers while making a fist.” It would just seem easier to use your other hand.
Once liner extends through outer shell a ring 322 may contract around the user’s finger and keep outer shell peeled back and out of the way, thereby allowing the user to use the i-device without slippage of the outer shell. Then when the user has finished operating the i-device, the user may retract the liner through aperture to return the glove to its initial state.
For those interested in the claims and wondering whether your cut out finger gloves infringe, Claim 1, which relates to the glove itself reads:
1. A multi-fingered glove for use with an electronic multi-touch sensitive device, comprising: an inner liner configured for individually covering a plurality of fingertips; and an outer shell including an aperture formed at each of a plurality of individual fingertip locations on the outer shell, the apertures operative to allow a plurality of inner liner-covered fingertips to protrude from the outer shell and contact and operate the multi-touch sensitive device; wherein the liner comprises at least a portion of electrically conductive material.
With respect to claim 1, I do wonder whether a double layer glove with a hole in the outer layer might be infringing, which of course would mean that it should have anticipated the claim. Such a glove would have to have a liner portion that is at least partially made of electrically conductive material. Even if it didn’t I would have thought that an examiner would reject such a claim as obvious in light of the double layered glove with a hole it in.
Perhaps KSR isn’t such an impediment after all? Truth be told, I suspect in most cases this would have been rejected. The trouble with KSR and obviousness as it stands now is that it is based on the nebulous non-standard of “common sense.” Sure, the Patent Office has attempted to make it more objective with the fair and balanced Interim KSR guidelines, but the Supreme Court did away with a bright line rule for obviousness. What you get as a result is disparate treatment from examiners. Not exactly what the Constitution is intended to promote when it talks about “equal protection” I know, but that is reality.
In any event, Claim 6, which relates to the method of using the glove reads:
6. A method for using a multi-fingered glove including a liner and an outer shell to operate a multi-touch sensitive device, the method comprising: peeling back a portion of the outer shell surrounding an aperture formed at each of a plurality of individual fingertip locations on the outer shell onto a each of a plurality of liner-covered fingertips to expose a plurality of portions of the liner and allow the plurality of liner-covered fingertips to protrude through the outer shell; using the plurality of liner-covered fingertips to interact with an input mechanism of an electronic device; and after finishing interacting with the input mechanism, retracting the plurality of liner-covered fingertips into the outer shell.
Anyway, I really wish those who have difficulty obtaining patents would make an equal protection argument. I have been practically begging for this for some time, apparently to no avail. While I am happy for Apple getting this patent, I am disappointed that many other inventors with unique inventions hit a KSR stumbling block that they cannot seem to get around. If the double layered glove with a hole in cannot be weaved together as the base reference for an obviousness rejection relative to claim 1 then many of the obviousness rejections I see and hear about simply unfair.