Patent: Slide-to-read

I was notified just recently of a recently awarded US patent on which I worked. The patent entitled, “Method for increased accessibility to a human machine interface,” was awarded about a month ago. We commonly call this accessibility feature “Slide-to-read.” The patent abstract reads:

A method is defined for providing an individual increased accessibility to a touch screen displaying first and second elements. The individual initially engages the touch screen with a contact point at a first location. The contact point is dragged across the touch screen into engagement with the first element and the first element is highlighted in response thereto. Thereafter, the individual may drag the contact point across the touch screen from the first element into engagement with the second element whereby the second element is highlighted on the touch screen and the highlight is removed from the first element. Audible announcements may accompany the contacting of the first or second elements with the contact point.

Figure from patent.
How slide-to-read works (from US Patent 8,760,421).

Patent language is kind of a language of its own, so here is what it really means…

In layman’s terms

Slide-to-read allows a person to get speech output for anything on the screen over which he or she drags a finger. This is very useful for people who have low vision or who cannot read some or all of the words on the display.

To use slide-to-read, the user must touch the screen and slide a finger into any other element on the screen. That other element and any subsequent element that the user touches while dragging are read out loud with text-to-speech. A visible focus highlight follows the user’s finger so that users know what item is being read. When the finger is lifted, the focus highlight stays on the last-touched item, so that the user can easily find that element to activate it. If the user taps the screen or does not drag into a different element, the system works as normal (e.g., activates a touchscreen button).

This invention is a new feature for EZ Access, which is a set of cross-disability access techniques that can be used on electronic devices, particularly for information and transaction kiosks. The EZ Access techniques were created by the Trace Research & Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While intended for use with EZ Access, the invention does not require EZ Access. Note that slide-to-read is a particular solution for people who cannot read text on a touchscreen. As a single-finger sliding gesture, it may conflict with panning and scrolling gestures that are used in some touchscreen systems. This is not typically an issue with kiosk systems where screens are designed for simplicity and ease of use.

Reference

Jordan, J. B., Vanderheiden, G. C., Kelso, D. P. (2014) Method For Increased Accessibility To A Human Machine Interface. US Patent 8,760,421

“Invisible” buttons as patented by Apple

Patently Apple reported yesterday on a recently granted patent for invisible backside buttons and slider controls. The patent’s (8,436,816) abstract:

An input device includes a deflection based capacitive sensing input. Deflection of a metal frame of the input device causes a change in capacitance that is used to control a function of an electrical device. The input appears selectively visible because it is made of the same material as the housing it is contained in and because it is selectively backlit through tiny holes.

Patent figure.
A figure from the patent showing example media controls in the palm-rest area of a laptop computer. (Credit Apple & U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)

Apple has been using indicator lights shining through small micro-perforations in several devices, including their Bluetooth keyboard. The result is a very elegant design unmarred by apparent through-holes for LEDs. This patent represents a way to also allow for user input through touch controls that are selectively illuminated.

Figure showing the keyboard's micro-perforation power indicator light.
Apple Bluetooth keyboard with indicator light off and on. (Credit: Flickr user DeclanTM; CC BY 2.0)

Accessibility

The buttons are certainly inaccessible to everyone when they are in their invisible state—that is the point—that the buttons will disappear into the case of the device when they are not needed.

When active or lit up however, the buttons remain “invisible” or imperceptible to those who cannot see or who find themselves in circumstances where they cannot look at the device (say while driving). This would make a non-personal device with such technology inaccessible to these users. On a personal device, the buttons may still be usable if the user can find them using other landmarks, such as the distance from a corner, edge or other feature of the device.

As another example of tactilely imperceptible controls, I have a laptop with a capacitive, light-up touch area with non-tactile media and volume controls. When they aren’t lit up, I cannot very easily find the control I want. I often end up touching several of them trying to find the mute button for example. Having some texture would make it much easier to find the control I need.

Protection of Intellectual Property

Image representing intellectual property law.The impact of some software innovations are big and others are small. However, if another organization were able to secure a patent on that idea or something very similar, one might be barred from using one’s own innovation. This may be particularly bad for innovations in the field of accessibility, which ideally should be available to as many people who need to use the technology. In order to protect an innovation, there are three general options:

  • Obtain patent protection. This option takes several years and is expensive, with attorney fees alone likely costing over $5000 for a very basic patent (Quinn, 2011).
  • Keep the innovation secret (i.e., a trade secret). If your innovation is relatively easy to reverse engineer or figure out, then this offers no protection. Any organization who figures it out could potentially patent it.
  • Defensively publish information. In patent law, anything published as prior art prevents someone else obtaining a similar patent. This publication allows you to keep using your innovation and allows others to benefit from that work. Even large companies and organizations use the defensive publication strategy to protect intellectual property that may not be worth the expense of full patent protection.

More about Defensive Publications

Defensive publications or technical disclosures are a relatively inexpensive way to prevent others from obtaining a patent that covers your innovation. Any type of publication (including publication in a conference proceeding, journal, or even in an online posting) should theoretically prevent someone else from obtaining a similar patent. However, more obscure publications may be missed by patent examiners because of the relatively small amount of time they have to search for prior art (Edge, 2012). Once a patent has been awarded, it is much harder to break the patent because the burden of proof has shifted.

There are several options for more visible publication strategies to establish prior art:

  • Potentially free: http://www.defensivepublications.org/ – Linux Defenders has a program to publicly disclose software to help protect open source software from patent litigation. Submissions are reviewed and edited at no cost to the contributor. If the program decides to publish the submission, it will pay the fees for inclusion in the prior art database kept by IP.com.
  • $225 per submission: http://ip.com/ – IP.com keeps a prior art database that is purported to be regularly checked by patent examiners. For a fee, IP.com will include your submission in this database.
  • $120 (€90) per page: http://www.researchdisclosure.com/ – Research Disclosure keeps a prior art database and publication that has PCT Minimum Documentation status (WIPO, 2005), which means that (by international treaty) patent examiners are to search this database. The company charges a fee per page for publication.

References

  1. Quinn, G. (2011, Jan. 28) The Cost of Obtaining a Patent in the US. http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2011/01/28/the-cost-of-obtaining-patent/id=14668/
  2. Edge, J. (2012, July 4) Akademy: Defensive publications. https://lwn.net/Articles/505030/
  3. WIPO (2005) PCT Minimum Documentation: Comprehensive Review. Geneva: World Intellectual Property Organization. http://www.wipo.int/edocs/mdocs/pct/en/pct_mia_11/pct_mia_11_6.pdf

Note: A version of this article is also posted on the GPII wiki.