Stupid Patent of the Month: Trolling Virtual Reality

from the this-has-been-done-before dept

This month's stupid patent describes an invention that will be familiar to many readers: a virtual reality (VR) system where participants can interact with a virtual world and each other. US Patent No. 6,409,599 is titled "Interactive virtual reality performance theater entertainment system." Does the '599 patent belong to the true inventors of VR? No. The patent itself acknowledges that VR already existed when the application was filed in mid-1999. Rather, it claims minor tweaks to existing VR systems such as having participants see pre-recorded videos. In our view, these tweaks were not new when the patent application was filed. Even if they were, minor additions to existing technology should not be enough for a patent.

The '599 patent is owned by a company called Virtual Immersion Technologies, LLC. This company appears to have no other business except patent assertion. So far, it has filed 21 patent lawsuits, targeting a variety of companies ranging from small VR startups to large defense companies. It has brought infringement claims against VR porn, social VR systems, and VR laboratories.

Virtual reality was not new in mid-1999. The only supposedly new features of the '599 patent are providing a live or prerecorded video of a live performer and enabling audio communication between the performer and a participant. Similar technology was infamously predicted in the Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978. In this sense, the patent is reminiscent of patents that take the form: "X, but on the Internet." Here, the patent essentially claims video teleconferencing, but in virtual reality.

Claim 1 of the '599 patent is almost 200 words long, but is packed with the kind of mundane details and faux-complexity typical of software patents. For example, the claim runs through various "input devices" and "output devices" assigned to the "performer" and "participant." But any VR system connecting two people will have such things. How else are the users supposed to communicate? Telepathy?

Like many software patents, the '599 patent describes the "invention" at an absurdly high, and unhelpful, level of abstraction. Any specific language in the patent is hedged to the point that it becomes meaningless. The "input devices" might be things like a "keypad or cyberglove," but can also be any device that "communicate[s] with the computer through a variety of hardware and software means." In other words, the "input device" can be almost any device at all. The patent suggests that the "underlying control programs and device drivers" can be written in "in many different types of programming languages." Similarly, the "network communication functions" can be accomplished by any "protocols or means which may currently exist or exist in the future." The overall message: build yourself a VR system from scratch and risk infringing.

RPX filed an inter partes review petition arguing that claims of the '599 patent were obvious at the time of the application. The petition argues, persuasively in our view, that earlier publications describe the supposed invention claimed by the '599 patent. The inter partes review proceeding has since settled, but any defendant sued by Virtual Immersion Technologies, LLC can raise the same prior art (and more) in their defense. Unfortunately, it is very expensive to defend a patent suit and this means defendants are pressured to settle even when the case is weak.

The '599 patent highlights many of the weaknesses of the patent system, especially with respect to software patents. First, the Patent Office failed to find prior art. Second, the patent claims are vague and the patent isn't tied to any concrete implementation. Finally, the patent ended being used to sue real companies that employ people and make things.

Republished from the EFF's Stupid Patent of the Month series.

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  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 5:59pm

    Acknowledging the wrong thing/persons

    Maybe we should be celebrating the stupid patent officer of the month. There should be categories for those that review patents and their supervisors and their managers and the executives that run the patent office. Those latter ones would be eligible many months in a row considering the impetus for the patent office to approve quantity rather than quality.

    I would like to see the Executive branch's economic discussion for promoting quantity over quality. Is there any industry (from any reasonable study that is not enabled by some partisan group) other than legal that win?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 8:26pm

    Lost In Space (the 1998 movie)

    ....also featured VR teleconferencing, in which Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) talks with teh Sedition leader in the middle of a desert (that is revealed to be VR).


    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    stderric (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 8:36pm

    If I'm not mistaken, Fig. 4 is just a sketch of your run-of-the-mill D&D/Maurice Sendak crossover fetish-roleplay cam studio. Nothing even remotely new or original about that, even back in '99.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Gary (profile), 29 Sep 2018 @ 6:18am


    Hey, the patent system is based on "First to File." So anyone that files get's ownership. It's how it is supposed to work. Ideas have to belong to someone. They can't just exist, otherwise where would people pay their licensing fees?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2018 @ 10:48am

      Re: Ownership

      One is not allowed a patent upon an idea, at least it is not supposed to work that way even though it does.

      How would one stop others form thinking about "their idea" without first paying a license? Obviously you would need a "you must be a pirate tax" in order to ensure the continuation of the useful arts and sciences.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Gary (profile), 29 Sep 2018 @ 11:47am

    How would one stop others form thinking about "their idea" without first paying a license?

    Simple - you lawyer up, sue everyone that tries to use "your" ideas. If you have enough money, you'll win. Trolling is the ultimate ideal for laissez faire capitalism.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 29 Sep 2018 @ 12:46pm


    99% of the problem with TECH at this time...
    Is data transition. The Amounts of data needed to do Most of the things we wish is NOT compact..
    Even Youtube is having problems at this time. Sending 1080p 60fps, is HUGE, not to even mention 4k..which is 4x720p..even at 30fps is a HUGE load and amount of data.

    High res VR, even if you use it as a Direct connection between 2 machines, will require Commercial Equipment, that is BARELY available to the consumer, let alone ABLE to use the internet.

    Even looking at programs and games NOW with VR, they are still abit BASIC..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Lord Lidl of Cheem (profile), 1 Oct 2018 @ 4:01am

      Re: TECH..

      Basic??? Last night I lost a boxing match to someone on the other side of the planet!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 1 Oct 2018 @ 8:56pm

        Re: Re: TECH..

        yes, I played that long ago on a arcade machine..
        doing it in VR and On the net..depends on the data they are swapping..Try Elite, or one of many Many other games that let you walk around 1st person, whee there are more then a FEW people..

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2018 @ 7:58am

    my turn

    I'm going to patent the ability to apply supplemental and/or additional patents to any, and all, prior arts (from now until the end of time); particularly, but not limited to, all prior art that is currently sufficiently patented.

    (where is Jackie Chiles Esq. when you need him?!? This whole thing is verbose, preposterous, obnoxious, and smacks of stupificous boxification!)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Oct 2018 @ 2:36pm

    Facebook needs to go after Virtual Immersion Technologies, LLC and every single employee of the company in court.

    Take them so far and for so long they all go personally bankrupt. Ruin and destroy their lives so utterly it might drive other patent trolls to rethink their business model.

    Because trolls are holding humanity back, they're stifling technological process and they are KILLING people by holding back medical and computer advances that could cure disease.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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