The next few months will be important ones for the coming smartwatch revolution. April 24th marks the date that the first Apple Watches will be available for retail sale in America and Apple expects to sell up to 4 million units of the product by the end of June. The arrival of the Apple Watch should be a sizable step forward in terms of state-of-the-art technologies for the smartwatch, to judge by reactions from those having experience using wearable gadgetry. The services available through these devices will also become more robust with time. WebMD has just announced an app for the Apple Watch that will remind users when to take their medication, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to the fitness tracking capabilities that have been proposed for smartwatches.
Apple may be making the most noticeable moves into the smartwatch realm currently but Samsung has an IP position in the sector that deserves recognition. We were able to identify a total of 39 active U.S. patents granted for smartwatch technologies using Innography’s patent analysis tools, 15 of which belong to Samsung. As some have pointed out, Samsung’s smartwatch IP illustrates some intriguing differences compared to the Apple Watch, including a rotatable display and the ability to transform from an annularly bent state to a flat state. Recent details disclosed about the upcoming Samsung Gear A include 3G connectivity and calling support functions.
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear has been on the market since the fall of 2013 and at one point enjoyed a 70 percent share of the global smartwatch market. When Apple releases its competitor product in the coming days, the major share of the market may very well be split between these two electronics developers. It will be impossible to declare a victor until after Samsung has had a chance to release its next-generation digital timepiece, but it will be interesting to watch them duke it out this year.
Apple’s IP Strength in Mobile and Wearables
Apple would seem to have a pretty weak IP position in the smartwatch market as it only holds two design patents specific to smartwatches. U.S. Patent No. D724469, entitled Band, claims the ornamental design of a strap that closely resembles a wristwatch strap. The design of the actual smartwatch component itself is protected by U.S. Patent No. D724103, titled Electronic Device. Taken together, these two patents protect the entire design of the Apple Watch that will be commercially released.
Of course, Apple has a strong patent portfolio related to mobile and even wearable technologies. According to Innography, Apple holds 89 U.S. patents related to wearable technology and 2,155 U.S. patents related to mobile tech, although there could be some overlap in those portfolios. Some of these intellectual property filings are closely related to smartwatches. A patent hasn’t been issued yet for U.S. Patent Application No. 20130044215, entitled Bi-Stable Spring with Flexible Display, but it would protect a wearable video device having a flexible substrate that can be operated between a flat state and a curled state. The invention is optimized to function as a slap bracelet with a flexible video display that wraps around a user’s wrist but the patent application states that securing mechanisms such as snaps or velcro could also be utilized. This patent application most recently experienced its second final rejection on April 3rd after multiple claims were rejected for obviousness under pre-AIA Section 103 of U.S. patent code.
We were able to uncover a few other Apple patents which are strongly related to the company’s position in the burgeoning smartwatch sector. The presentation of sport performance data to a person through a watch is described within U.S. Patent No. 7054784, issued under the title Sport Monitoring Systems. This patent issued on May 30th, 2006. It claims techniques for collecting data from sensors connected to a person involved in an activity, determining the speed, power and impact characteristics of that person and can gauge activities like jogging, biking, hockey or football. A user of this system would be able to quickly glance at a watch to monitor their sports performance in real time. A very similar technology is explained by U.S. Patent No. 7092846, titled Systems and Methods for Determining Performance Data. This innovation involves a sensor and microprocessor system integrated into either a person’s clothing or a watch. This particular system involves a gaming component that allows multiple participants to compare various performance characteristics or compete for performance awards.
Samsung’s Contender Offers Telephone Services, Bioauthentication
Most of what we were able to uncover in Samsung’s smartwatch IP holdings were design patents as well; those account for 14 of the 15 U.S. patents we’ve identified with the help of Innography. The communicative capabilities of the Samsung smartwatch are pointed out within U.S. Patent No. D725068, issued in late March of this year under the title Watch Phone. Diagrams attached to this design patent indicate a smartwatch with a substantially curved substrate and display screen. This differs from the overall design of the Apple Watch, which incorporates the wristband and watch head configuration of conventional wristwatches. A segmented electronic device which could be worn around a person’s wrist is disclosed by U.S. Patent No. D716246, titled Multimedia Portable Electronic Communication Device. This patent was issued near the end of October 2014. Interestingly, this patent cites the Apple patent application provided above as one of the nearly 30 U.S. patent references given by Samsung for this invention.
We were able to identify one utility patent directed squarely at smartwatches and held by Samsung. U.S. Patent No. 8994827, titled Wearable Electronic Device, claims a device with a body that includes a touch-sensitive display, a processor, a band containing an optical sensor facing away from the band for capturing images and a second optical sensor positioned within the device body and placed within an angle of view relative to the touch-sensitive display. The use of this technology as a smartwatch isn’t specifically mentioned within the patent itself but many of the patent references discuss watches and smartwatch technologies. Drawings of the invention also show the technology embodied in a watch and wristband configuration.
The narrative regarding the smartwatch industry will likely be in a state of flux over the next year. Apple is drawing much of the mainstream attention right now but in Samsung’s eyes, Apple is joining a market which Samsung pioneered and plans to dominate. The concept of a flexible Samsung phone had been suggested by those following the corporation’s development of flexible organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technologies. Samsung’s IP filings listed above and some of the patent drawings we’ve included here suggest that much of that flexible OLED research and development will provide at least some of the foundation for Samsung’s eventual release of a competitive smartwatch product. Samsung’s smartwatch product will also likely involve the use of biometric sensor technologies that can track a user’s heart rate to authenticate a wearer.
Samsung won’t provide the only challenge to the Apple Watch. LG, another South Korean electronics giant, launched the LG Watch Urbane LTE in its home country for a retail value approaching $600 USD (650,000 won). We only identified one LG smartwatch patent but felt it was significant enough to share. U.S. Patent No. 8896526, which is titled Smartwatch and Control Method Thereof, specifically claims a smartwatch with a tilt sensor, a display unit and a processor controlling both of those components. The invention provides a more accurate smartwatch system for detecting tilt commands made by a user through the analysis of the physical position of the arm to designate different threshold angles of rotation, preventing malfunction. This particular patent issued during November of last year. With more companies moving into the smartwatch space, it’s pretty clear that the smartwatch market will be highly active, likely by the end of this year.