Apple Patents Method of Dealing with “Sloppy Taps”
|Written by Gene Quinn
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Patent Attorney, Reg. No. 44,294
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: April 27, 2011 @ 10:26 am
Did you ever think you would read a patent related article with “sloppy taps” in the title? Probably not! And dealing with “sloppy taps”? Surely dealing with “sloppy taps” would seem more appropriate for a medical device company, pharmaceutical company or maybe a biotechnology firm, but Apple?
The term “sloppy taps” could make a great name for a race horse, particularly one that thrives on running in the mud, or more accurately on a track where there is standing water, which is the true definition of a “sloppy track.” But what Apple refers to as a “sloppy tap” is a control finger motion used to produce a tapping motion on a touch screen that incorporates a sliding motion. How are you to tell whether a tap was intended or a slide was intended? Luckily, Apple has come up with a method of deciphering sloppy taps, and was awarded U.S. Patent No. 7,932,896 on April 26, 2011.
Apparently, it can be difficult for a user to control finger motion to produce a tapping motion with little or no sliding motion. This is problematic because prior to the Apple sloppy tap innovation it was difficult to distinguish between a tap and a true sliding gesture as intended by the user. The sloppy tap innovation incorporates an algorithm that takes into account both a time instability factor and a touch instability factor. A limited amount of motion per frame can be canceled during a time period immediately following the detection of a touch event. Small lateral motions indicative of a sloppy tap and not truly indicative of a sliding motion can be suppressed. The relatively fast finger motions indicative of a quick, long cursor movement can immediately pass through the filter without being suppressed.
In any event, one might expect that this patent had some difficulty getting issued, but it was relatively smooth sailing with few amendments to the claims necessary. Representative of the ultimately allowed claims are claim 1 and claim 31:
1. A method for suppressing position change in a detected image of touch to assist in distinguishing tapping motions from sliding motions on a touch sensor panel, comprising: computing a time instability factor in accordance with a time instability function that provides a first amount of suppressed position change per frame for a given time since the image of touch was detected; subtracting the first amount of suppressed position change per frame from a first position change per frame value for the detected image of touch to obtain a suppressed position change per frame for the detected image of touch; and utilizing the suppressed position change per frame for the detected image of touch to assist in distinguishing tapping motions from sliding motions on the touch sensor panel.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
31. A computer-readable medium comprising program code for suppressing position change in a detected image of touch to assist in distinguishing tapping motions from sliding motions on a touch sensor panel, the program code for causing performance of a method comprising: computing a time instability factor in accordance with a time instability function that provides a first amount of suppressed position change per frame for a given time since the image of touch was detected; subtracting the first amount of suppressed position change per frame from a first position change per frame value for the detected image of touch to obtain a suppressed position change per frame for the detected image of touch; and utilizing the suppressed position change per frame for the detected image of touch to assist in distinguishing tapping motions from sliding motions on the touch sensor panel.
Aside from the indefiniteness rejections that were not particularly challenging to correct, both claim 1 and claim 31 were initially rejected by the patent examiner under 35 U.S.C. 102, pursuant to U.S. Patent No. 5,880,441. The patent examiner noted that “it appears Applicant’s claimed invention is directed towards a method for suppressing position change in a detected image of touch to assist in distinguishing tapping motions from sliding motions on a touch sensor panel by discriminating a detected area of a press between taps and other touch signals as disclosed by Gillespie (see Figs. 15C-15E, 17A-17E, as well as Col. 35-38).”
Gillespie at first glance does look quite similar, and in truth for many innovators the Gillespie patent would likely be too close to make it worthwhile to pursue a patent narrow enough to distinguish over it. But here we are dealing with Apple and adding to the patent portfolio is likely of paramount importance.
In any event, the Gillespie invention recognizes whether certain gestures are made by novice or expert users. Novice users will tap slower than expert users, so if you are going to have a tap lockout used to distinguish between a tap and drag you need to provide more time for novice users to tap. You see, when a tap is recognized, the virtual mouse button is depressed, however, the virtual mouse button is not released until the finger has remained away from the pad for a sufficient amount of time to disqualify as a drag gesture. Thus, when a novice tap is recognized, the timing of the OUT signal will be delayed, so that novice users will have a longer time to begin a drag gesture.
Confused as to exactly how the Apple patent and the Gillespie patent differ? Well, here is how the attorney representing Apple persuasively distinguished the Apple innovation from the Gillespie innovation:
Gillespie is directed toward distinguishing various gestures such as the tap and drag gestures. In Gillespie, the drag gesture is initiated by, inter alia, first performing a valid tap gesture and then returning the finger to the touch panel prior to the expiration of a predetermined time interval… Thus, Gillespie is concerned with being able to distinguish novice from expert tap and drag gestures. However, applicant’s drag gesture is determined without the Gillespie pre-requisite initial tap and returning of the finger to the sensor pad. Applicant’s drag gesture is done simply by dragging the finger over the surface of the touch pad. Applicant is concerned with this simple dragging of the finger over the touch screen as distinguished from a “sloppy tap” in which the suer intends to tap the touch panel but incurs some sliding motion in the process.
Is this a difference without a distinction? No, because it was a difference the patent examiner bought, thereby it is necessarily a distinction with a difference, at least insofar as the decision-maker was concerned. The key here seems to be that the Gillespie approach required a two step, tap then drag, which if done fast enough would signal a drag rather than a mere tap. The Apple innovation has essentially been able to combine the two step process to a single step whereby the distinguishing between a tap and a drag can be done virtually on the fly, or on the slide as the case may be.
So how many of you thought that such a distinction would be sufficient to distinguish the Gillespie invention from the Apple invention? Probably not many who are not patent attorneys, but that is the type of fine line that can lead to a patent claim being awarded and is exactly why those who seek to represent themselves will always leave patentable matter on the table.
Yes, Apple did have to add a phrase to claims 1 and 31 in order to make them patentable, namely “utilizing the suppressed position change per frame for the detected image of touch to assist in distinguishing tapping motions from sliding motions on the touch sensor panel.” But that was added not to distinguish Gillespie, but rather to address a patent eligibility rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101. By adding that phrase to each claim the claims became directed toward a specific application of a touch sensor panel technology, thereby providing the requisite tangibility to be tied to a machine to suffice the machine or transformation test.
The moral of the story? Far more is patentable than most people realize. The question isn’t typically whether you can obtain a patent but rather whether a usefully broad patent claims can be obtained. What is usefully broad for a company like Apple is likely not the same as what is usefully broad for a start-up company or an entrepreneur looking to start a business. Fine line distinctions can, however, play an important role in obtaining patent protection and layering on specifics to attempt to distinguish Gillespie simply wasn’t necessary, at least to get the patent.
For the record, I still think “sloppy taps” makes for a great name for a race horse.
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About the Author
Gene Quinn is a US Patent Attorney, law professor and the founder of IPWatchdog.com. He is also a principal lecturer in the top patent bar review course in the nation, which helps aspiring patent attorneys and patent agents prepare themselves to pass the patent bar exam. Gene started the widely popular intellectual property website IPWatchdog.com in 1999, and since that time the site has had many millions of unique visitors. Gene has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, USA Today, CNN Money, NPR and various other newspapers and magazines worldwide. He represents individuals, small businesses and start-up corporations. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.