PatentNext Summary: Virtual Reality (VR)-related patents are expected to rise with the onset of the Metaverse. Given that VR is fundamentally a software technology, how do courts review VR-related patents? Early cases show that courts will apply similar scrutiny as for other software-related technologies, where VR-related patents will need to satisfy current patent eligibility standards, e.g., by showing an “improvement” to underlying computing technology.
The “Metaverse” is an expansive online world that can be experienced via multiple technological platforms – from a screen of a mobile device to the lens of a virtual reality (VR) system. VR systems typically comprise 3D-based software that controls a VR device, such as a VR headset. A popular example of a VR headset is the Oculus series of headsets as provided by Reality Labs and its parent company Meta Platforms.
Patenting VR Technology
Given that VR is fundamentally a software technology, how do courts analyze VR-related patents? As for other software technologies, it is expected that VR patents will need to satisfy current patent eligibility standards required under 35 U.S.C. § 101 and pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International. See Are Software Inventions Patentable?
One way is to argue that a VR invention provides an “improvement” to underlying technology compared to the prior art. See How to Patent Software Inventions: Show an “Improvement.” The below example case explores how demonstrating an “improvement” can overcome a patent eligibility challenge for a VR-related patent.
Example Patent Case Involving VR technology
Early cases show that courts will apply similar scrutiny for VR-related patents as for other software-related technologies, where VR-related patents will need to satisfy current patent eligibility standards, e.g., by showing an “improvement” to underlying computing technology.
In one example case, AR Design Innovations LLC (“AR Design”) asserted a VR-related patent against several furniture manufacturers, including Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc.’s (“Ashley”), La-Z-Boy Incorporated’s (“La-Z-Boy”), and Ethan Allen Interiors, Inc. (“Ethen Allen”) (collectively “Defendants”). The cases were ultimately consolidated into a single action. See AR Design Innovations LLC v. Ashley Furniture Indus., Inc., 4:20-cv-392 (E.D. Tex. filed May 12, 2020).
The patent owner, AR Design, had asserted U.S. Pat. No. 7,277,572 (the “’572 patent”) titled “Three-Dimensional Interior Design System.” The ’572 patent describes a “software application configured to reside on a client computer, which is capable of manipulating 3-D object representations in-situ with a user-selected or user-generated interior design scene, and rendering photographic quality perspective images of the composite scene. ’572 Patent at 1:8-13.
Defendants (the furniture manufacturers) had each developed mobile software applications that allowed customers to generate and render photorealistic 3D objects (e.g., furniture) within a 3D scene (e.g., a room). A user could rearrange or edit the objects and scenes in real time.
Patent Owner, AR Design, alleged that the Defendants’ respective software infringed at least claim 1 of the ’572 patent.
Claim 1 described a VR-related invention involving a client-server computing environment for rendering 3D scenes:
- A method in a client-server computing environment for generating and rendering a photorealistic three-dimensional (3D) perspective view of a 3D object selectively positioned within a 3D scene, the method comprising:
(a) communicably accessing a server with a client;
(b) operating with the client, a client application configured for scene editing and rendering, including a graphical user interface (GUI);
(c) displaying a 3D scene with the GUI;
(d) configuring the 3D scene for being selectively displayed in a plurality of views;
(e) retrieving at least one 3D object from the server;
(f) importing the 3D object into the 3D scene to generate a composite;
(g) manipulating the 3D object within the composite for placement and orientation;
(h) rendering a 3D image of the composite at the client;
(i) selectively reconfiguring the 3D image in real time;
(j) applying luminosity characteristics to the 3D image; and
(k) rendering, with the client application, a photorealistic 3D view of the composite image, including the luminosity characteristics.
Claim 1 covers an embodiment for furniture manufacturers and sellers to “showcase their products.” ’572 Patent at 7:1-2. In particular, the embodiment allows end users to see a manufacturer’s products in full, realistic, 3D with the ability to change the texture (textile covering, finish, etc.) of the product” and “may allow a furniture manufacturer to exhibit their sofas or chairs covered in all of the different materials offered by them.” Id. at 7:2–7.
Figure 28 of the ’572 Patent depicts an example embodiment as a high-resolution rendering of a 3D “furniture object” (a bed) positioned in a virtual environment (a bedroom):
At the outset of the case, the Defendants filed a Section 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the case.
In particular, the Defendants alleged that claim 1 of the ’572 patent was not eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 because it was “directed to” an abstract idea — specifically, the abstract idea of “retrieving, manipulating, and displaying three-dimensional objects in space,” which was “just a well-known longstanding practice commonly used by model builders, students constructing dioramas, architects, and even movie makers.” AR Design Innovations, 4:20-cv-392, Mem. Op. and Order (Dkt. 78), slip op. at 3 (E.D. Tex. filed May 12, 2020).
Defendants specifically argued that claim 1 of the ’572 patent was analogous to the longstanding human practice of making models or constructing dioramas (i.e., miniature scenes reproduced in three dimensions by placing figures before a painted background). Id. at 18.
Patent Owner, AR Design, rebutted that claim 1 was instead directed to a software tool that set 3D objects in 3D scenes, and that provided an improvement by allowing for the application of luminosity characteristics to the scene and the real-time manipulation of 3D objects on client devices via an easy-to-use graphical user interface. Id.
The court agreed with AR Design. According to the court, the ’572 patent claim 1 was “directed to” specific improvements to the manipulability and appearance of 3D scenes and objects, including luminosity characteristics. Id. at 17. The ’572 specification explained that the claimed invention enhanced the speed with which such scenes and objects may be rendered and edited. Thus, because claim 1 was directed to the underlying system’s “speed” and “usability,” it could not be abstract (and, therefore, could not be patent ineligible). Id.
The court further noted that the Defendants’ characterization of AR Design’s claims as a well-known “diorama” technique was overly simplistic and did not capture the essence of AR Design’s claimed invention. Id. at 18.
Instead, the court noted that it discerned “no difference between improvements to a tool such as a hammer or saw that makes building dioramas faster and easier and a patent on specific improvements to a tool such as the software at issue that makes digital 3D modeling faster and easier.” Id.
Accordingly, the court denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss. Id. at 19. Each of the defendants subsequently settled their respective cases.
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