On November 9th, Stamford, CT-based human-machine interface developer HoloTouch, Inc. filed a lawsuit asserting willful patent infringement claims against Redmond, WA-based tech giant Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT). Filed in the Southern District of New York, the suit alleges that Microsoft has ignored licensing talks with the original inventor of certain holographic interface input technologies which were developed in the mid-1990s even while filing patent applications which cite to patents issued to HoloTouch as prior art.
HoloTouch is asserting two of its patents in this case:
- U.S. Patent No. 6377238, titled Holographic Control Arrangement. Issued to solo inventor Robert Douglas MacPheters in April 2002, it claims a control arrangement for allowing an operator to control an electronic or electro-mechanical device conventionally controlled by a tangible control mechanism requiring physical response, the control arrangement working in such a way that an operator can control the device without touching any solid object.
- U.S. Patent No. 7054045, titled Holographic Human-Machine Interfaces. Issued in May 2006 to HoloTouch and listing McPheters as the lead inventor, it claims an apparatus which can be controlled without physical interaction with an operator and providing hologram, illumination and actuation detection means.
HoloTouch’s patent complaint notes that the inventions covered by the patents solved issues in the human-machine interface (HMI) industry at the time of their development. For example, the technology covered by the ‘045 patent addressed issues with conventional HMIs at the time in that were bulky and consumed a lot of power by achieving reductions in power consumption, size and weight of the HMIs, some of which larger device footprints than the devices they were designed to control.
The developments pioneered by MacPheters and others at HoloTouch extend back to at least the mid-1990s; the patent application for the ‘238 patent was filed in June 1995. HoloTouch’s recent patent complaint notes that, in order to encourage the adoption of the company’s patented technologies, it works with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to design and build prototypes of devices. HoloTouch has also offered the use of demonstration units to OEMs to further promote the adoption of its patented technologies.
HoloTouch’s business activities include licensing efforts with OEMs, especially short-term development licenses in which HoloTouch collaborates by offering design, engineering and manufacturing services. The licenses offered by HoloTouch are predicated on various factors including the economics of the market where products will be sold, locations where touchless control products will be manufactured and sold as well as compensation to be paid for the use of HoloTouch’s patented technology, including fixed royalties for a limited period of prototype deployment or continuing royalties based on a percentage of net sales for products using the patented technology.
HoloTouch’s allegations of patent infringement center around Microsoft’s HoloLens HMI which incorporates a holographic computer into a wearable headset. The holographic experience in a HoloLens is implemented both through high-definition semitransparent holographic lenses as well as spatial sound technology including an inertial measurement unit, an ambient light sensor, one camera for measuring depth and four “environment understanding cameras;” the spatial sound technology works in concert to process information about a user’s environment and how the user interacts with that environment. As HoloTouch notes, a user may interact with the HoloLens unit in multiple ways by providing gaze or gesture inputs, one form of gesture input being known as an “air-tap.” Such air-tap gestures allow users to interact with a holographic keyboard application displayed in the user’s viewing environment. Microsoft provides source code for incorporating the holographic keyboard into apps which are being developed for the HoloLens platform.
Allegedly, HoloTouch’s attempts to forge a strategic partnership with Microsoft date back to September 2006 when HoloTouch communicated its intentions to introduce holographic products to the marketplace. Microsoft didn’t respond to those communications. Then HoloTouch alleges that Microsoft filed a patent application in October of 2013 which cited HoloTouch’s patents as prior art, giving them knowledge of those patents. After that, HoloTouch attempted both in November of 2015 and January of 2016 to inquire about Microsoft’s interests in licensing the HoloTouch patents. Microsoft responded by declining to entertain licensing discussions.
In its first count of patent infringement, HoloTouch alleges that the HoloLens meets every element of claim 1 and dependent claims 2 through 7 and 10 of the ‘238 patent. Claim 1 of the patent is infringed by the various component parts of the HoloLens including the holographic image generator, an actuation detector identifying when an operator selects a holographic image and a signal generator for providing a signal to the device when the actuation detector determines that the image has been selected. Other claims cover various aspects of the HoloLens’ operation including holographic images of a QWERTY keyboard and the determination of the value of keys selected by a user.
HoloTouch’s second count of infringement involves independent claims 1 and 4 as well as dependent claims 2, 11 and 17. Claim 2 covers the use of glass, acrylic or plastic as the transparent and translucent materials, which are elements of claim 1; HoloTouch alleges that these are the materials used by Microsoft in the HoloLens. Claim 17 covers a signal generator that generates both audible and visual signals which indicate to the operator that the actuation detector has determined that a user has selected a holographic image, another feature found in the HoloLens made by Microsoft.
Given the relative size between the two companies and Microsoft’s unwillingness to engage in licensing talks, the obvious fear that a patent owner like HoloTouch faces is that Microsoft may try to protract the legal proceedings by filing a petition for a patent validity trial at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). No such trials have been petitioned for yet according to legal data analytics available through Lex Machina but it will be interesting to see if the tech giant takes such an action in the near future. This January, Microsoft representatives noted that the firm has sold thousands of HoloLens units at a price point of $3,000 per unit.