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Apple Patents Glove for Use With Electronic Devices


Written by Gene Quinn
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Patent Attorney, Reg. No. 44,294
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: January 28, 2011 @ 2:49 pm
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Fig. 2 of U.S. Patent No. 7,874,021

In something of a switch for Apple, Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), the company known for such popular devices as the iPad, iPhone and the iPod, has obtained a patent on a glove. Yes, the company known for pushing the envelope with high tech gadgets has entered the clothing market with a patented glove.  Not just any glove mind you, but rather one that will be sure to help you keep your hands and fingers warm while still being able to use your favorite smart-gadgets.

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.

Fig. 3 of U.S. Patent No. 7,874,021

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?

Fig. 4 of U.S. Patent No. 7,874,021

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.

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Posted in: Apple, Companies We Follow, Gene Quinn, IP News, IPWatchdog.com Articles, Museum of Obscure Patents, Patents

About the Author

is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog IPWatchdog.com, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.

 

22 comments
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  1. Equal Protection? If anyone could actually sustain a claim under the 14th Am, at best the law would be subject to review under a rational basis standard; as such, it would almost assuredly be upheld.

  2. 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.

    Is it really obvious to use an electrically conductive material in a glove? Most electrically conductive materials are also thermally conductive, which would rather defeat the purpose.

    I can see an argument being made that using one’s iPhone is well known in the art to be more important than anything else you might ever want to do with your body or brain, including keeping warm. It’s right below the physiological tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so it’s a good thing you can use your iPhone in the bathroom. I guess that would render obvious an iPhone-compatible glove even if it meant losing your fingertips to the cold.

  3. Mike-

    Can you articulate any rational basis for treating similarly situated inventors differently? I think it would be extremely hard to come up with any rational basis for disparate treatment between inventors who are seeking to obtain a patent. Having said that, I would love to hear how the arbitrary whims of one examiner applying the “common sense” KSR test are rational when they deny a patent and how the arbitrary whims of another examiner employing the “common sense” test are rational when they allow a patent.

    The foundation of the equal protection argument finds itself rooted in the fact that using the Supreme Court’s test not only encourages disparate treatment, but rather it ensures disparate treatment because it is not defined.

    -Gene

  4. IANAE-

    I guess this leads to another question. The patent specifically mentions that rubber can be used for the lining. Is that an electrically conductive material? On some level all materials are electrically conductive to some extent or another.

    Also, I was going to weave this into the article but figured it might get lost there. What about the rules that say that the problem itself can suggest the solution? So if you have the problem defined and you have a glove with a hole in it, wouldn’t the resulting combination be obvious?

    Now I hate the “problem defines the solution” aspects of obviousness, but it does exist and get used.

    Circling back to the equal protection matter, I don’t see how there can be any rational basis for some examiners apply different standards. We all know there are examiners who will use the “problem defines the solution” in combination with another reference for obviousness purposes, and we all know that many examiners don’t use that. The one nice thing about an equal protection argument is the well-established law that says that failure to apply the correct legal standard is an abuse of discretion. If it is an abuse of discretion then how can it also provide a rational basis?

    -Gene

  5. KSR as unconstitutional…

    Might be a hard sell.

  6. The patent specifically mentions that rubber can be used for the lining. Is that an electrically conductive material?

    I don’t think so. That embodiment is probably covered by a different independent claim.

    I don’t see how there can be any rational basis for some examiners apply different standards.

    They’re not supposed to apply different standards, obviously. That’s what the MPEP is for – to make the standards as uniform as possible for thousands of individual human beings examining hundreds of thousands of unique inventions in view of different art without a bright line test. Because not everything in life admits of a bright line test.

    I think you’re having trouble with this particular patent because it seems obvious to you, and you imply that it should have been rejected as obvious even if one claim limitation was not found in the art at all. KSR still requires that the prior art teach the entirety of the claim. I also take issue with the implication that “those who have difficulty obtaining patents” are ipso facto victims of unequal protection. This may be a socially pointless invention, but from a patentability standpoint it’s far from the worst set of claims I’ve ever seen.

    The remedy for unfair treatment by examiners is to appeal. Yes, that has its own problems, but it’s a stretch to make a constitutional argument against a government agency when you haven’t exhausted its internal administrative remedies. Besides, if you’re right that Apple shouldn’t have gotten this patent under the law, it’s hardly an appropriate remedy to give other people equally bad patents.

  7. BD-

    We all know that applicant A gets distinctly different treatment from applicant B at the USPTO. If that were happening in any other agency it would certainly be unconstitutional. If similarly situated people were denied social security benefits, for example, there would be absolutely no rational basis for that whatsoever.

    KSR isn’t the reason that there is disparate treatment. It has always existed. Nevertheless, KSR is the BIG reason moving forward because it can be molded into whatever the examiner wants. I don’t suspect that the Supremes would ever acknowledge that they announced a rule that facilitates disparate treatment, and instead will pretend that 6300+ examiners just need to do a better job understanding their brilliance. Having said that, this type of argument could sway some on the Federal Circuit to moderate KSR.

    Additionally, with property rights involved I don’t see why you can’t say “you granted this patent last week and if that is patentable then so is my invention.” The Patent Office belief has always been “we made a mistake then, but we won’t make that same mistake again.” That is by definition arbitrary and capricious and an equal protection violation. Where the Director has the right to issue sua sponte reexaminations the recourse for the Office SHOULD be either grant the second patent too or issue a sua sponte reexamination to fix the observed error.

    -Gene

  8. IANAE-

    First, I don’t really have a problem with this patent. I am just using it as a vehicle to discuss things other than its specific subject matter. You know me, I am a more patents the better kind of guy. Useless patents don’t get enforced, and neither do ones that have obviously invalid claims. I just thought that KSR was supposed to address those things that seem obvious. Isn’t that what the Supremes said and clearly wanted?

    Second, I agree you need to exhaust internal remedies. I have been asking folks to just devote one or two paragraphs in an appeal brief to preserve the issue for later. The Board, I’m sure, will say something like it doesn’t matter what happened in another case, they are only reviewing this case, which to some extent is true.

    Third, why is it an inappropriate remedy to give other people bad patents? If the government gives one a property right and doesn’t take steps to remedy their own mistake when the could with a Director initiate reexam, why shouldn’t others be given the same bad property right? Again, similarly situated people are supposed to be treated similarly by the government. With social security benefits no court would tolerate the disparate treatment that we have all seen at the USPTO.

    I understand the nature of the beast at the USPTO, and I am not trying to slam examiners. They are overworked and underpaid. Having said that, the Supreme march to no bright line rules compounds the inequities that we all know exist. While it might not be a big deal to large companies it could be a huge deal to start-ups. They have extreme difficulty in getting patents and those patents would lead to investment, expansion and jobs. Hank Notthaft’s speech explained the problems with start up biotech companies that just cannot get patents issued, yet we have a patent on a glove.

    I think we need to take a page from the ACLU playbook and popularize the problem.

    -Gene

  9. I just thought that KSR was supposed to address those things that seem obvious.

    That’s not my understanding of KSR. I thought KSR was supposed to address the combination of two known features from two different references, each for its own known purpose, without having to find an improbable sentence in either reference telling you to combine the two.

    We all know that “seeming obvious” isn’t good enough unless the examiner finds the art. I’ve seen examiners reject claims simply because they “seem obvious”, and in those isolated cases you might well find a constitutional issue.

    Third, why is it an inappropriate remedy to give other people bad patents?

    It’s not appropriate, of course. But it’s also not a remedy, because the allegedly bad patent has already been granted. The remedy is what you seek for your own application. If you believe that your application is no worse than someone else’s issued patent, you can always have that other patent reexamined. It won’t help your case to get that patent invalidated, but at least you’ll feel like the world is in balance.

    Yes, the PTO could initiate reexam sua sponte, but it would be a tremendous waste of resources to do that in every case where the applicant alleges that someone else’s claims are no better than his. Some of the perceived disparity occurs because you can never truly find two claims in two applications that have exactly the same entitlement to issue as a patent. Of course, that’s also why bright-line tests are unworkable.

    I would also suggest, based largely on speculation, that some people find it easier to get patents because they have more experienced agents who have a better rapport with examiners and are better at drafting an allowable claim and making a convincing argument. I haven’t seen any indication that there’s anything sinister going on.

    Hank Notthaft’s speech explained the problems with start up biotech companies that just cannot get patents issued, yet we have a patent on a glove.

    That’s more of an equal staffing problem. Also, some biotechs (not the ones looking for funding) probably enjoy the backlog very much, because it gives them lots of PTA.

    But yes, the backlog is a very real problem, and meaningfully reducing it would also address many of the other patent-related problems that people have.

  10. As a fellow inventor I will freely give my opinion. I have encountered this exact problem on jobsites, and it is an annoyance and hindrance. To the best of my knowledge, the touchsceens react to your bioelectric conductivity. Seeing as depending on what kind of gloves a professional needs for his/her job, you could be trying to alter an uneconomical plethora of gloves. So a better approach would be to make a rivet system kit, that can transfer the skins conductivity through a proper medium to the surface of the glove, that will then react with the touch-screen. This is a modification that can be fashioned for any style glove. And some sort of cover could be made to protect the interactive rivet, so it doesn’t get damaged. Or the external conductor of the rivet, could have the additional option of being removed when not in use. Any thoughts?

  11. IANAE-

    I agree there is a big difference between “seeming obvious” and being obvious. Technically KSR was about combining references, but do you really think that was in the mind of the Supremes? I doubt it. They wanted to kill inventions that seem obvious which is why they didn’t announce a standard, tied it to common sense and basically said we acknowledge there will be difficulties but we think you can figure it out district courts, CAFC and patent examiners.

    I would agree that there isn’t anything sinister going on, and there is certainly something to the way an application is prosecuted. I have seen some that make you scratch your head and say “did they really think that would work to get a patent issued?” I do think, however, that there isn’t enough standardization between and among examiners, which is a big problem only made worse by KSR.

    Agreed. There are biotechs that enjoy the backlog, but not all.

    -Gene

  12. I looked over the prosecution history of this patent. It appears that the key limitation that led to allowance was “wherein the liner comprises at least a portion of electrically conductive material.” This was considered as distinct from a liner having “an electrical resistivity similar to that of skin” (such as latex) which was rejected. So to infringe, the liner material would need to be a better conductor of electricity than human skin. I would think that such a narrow limitation would easy to overcome, enabling a competitive product using a latex liner or the like. Bottom liine, this patent is not so much an example of poor examination or of KSR run amok as it is simply a low-quality invention of dubious commercial value. In other words, a dust-gatherer; mere bulk fiber for Apple’s corporate patent portfolio. The kind of patent, which if we are honest about it, comprise the majority of issued patents, and would be best served by a lower tier or track in a reformed, multi-level patent system.

  13. by a lower tier or track in a reformed, multi-level patent system.

    Before we embark on another ride on the Merry-go-round, Ron, you do realize that prior to patent and subsequent market development activities, that there is no way to ascertain which “track” would be appropriate for a vast number of applications, do you not?

    Hindsight in examination is not the only vice in hindsight to be on guard against.

  14. “prior to patent and subsequent market development activities, that there is no way to ascertain which “track” would be appropriate”

    Generally that’s quite true, which is why the ability to switch tracks (with the attendant increase in cost, risk, and if successful, strength of IP rights) is a key feature of such a system.

  15. Ron,

    Please explain how this “key feature” of switching tracks works as what I posted above indicates that the post patent value cannot be determined in the application phase – the very place where your track-switching is active.

    Oh wait – you still are assuming that your “patents” from tracks one or two have any actual value. Ron – you really must come up with a different name – those tracks do not yield “patents” as that word is understood.

  16. Even an issued patent under today’s system is still very much pending in a sense. It can be subject to reissue, reexamination, litigation. I think the meaning under a mutli-level system would be clear enough by using the adjectives track/tier 1, 2, 3.

  17. And away we go – adjective track/tier 1, 2 are worthless – you might as well not go there.

    The image of Evil Knievel and the Grand Canyon keep flashing in my mind with the jump to be made to achieve any substantive value. Even powered by my Kool-Aid, Evil would not make it across.

  18. Rather than rehash the same dialog, interested readers can simply google ‘ip watchdog hilton tier’ to see my comments and responses on the subject

  19. OK, I normally love Apple products, but this particular invention sounds pretty ridiculous. Wouldn’t it seem to make more sense (and be less complicated) to invent and patent a means of improving the input mechanisms of electronic devices so that they could more readily detect pressure from glove-encased fingers?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKAY5WVv5N8

  20. I can’t see the gloves really getting that popular; its an interesting idea though… especially in these cold months! To comment on another person’s statement about the phone being more sensitive to pressure, that would be good in theory… but then you would have to worry about the phone “pocket dialing” more often.

  21. “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.”

    Umm… marching band players cut the tips of their gloves off all the time for holes in instruments that don’t get covered too well with a glove. I suppose it’s non-obvious to apply that to a iPad…

  22. RT @bilsimpson: This useful blog provides the latest patent applications from Apple Inc.
    http://new-apple-patent-applications.blogspot.com