The Software IP Report

Providing Haptic Feedback Patent-eligible or Abstract Idea?

By Mike McCandlish

Categories: The Software IP Report

Claims from two out of three patents for providing haptic feedback to computer users survived a motion to dismiss based on a patent eligibility challenge under the Mayo/Alice test and 35 U.S.C. § 101. Considering their character as a whole, the court found that the claims were not directed to abstract ideas. Immersion Corp. v. Fitbit, Inc., No. 17-CV-03886-LHK, (N.D. Ca., March 5, 2018). The court held claims of a third patent to be patent-ineligible.

Plaintiff, Immersion Corporation filed suit against Defendant Fitbit, Inc. alleging infringement of claims of U.S. Patent No. 8,059,105, U.S. Patent No. 8,351,299, and U.S. Patent No. 8,638,301. Fitbit moved to dismiss, contending that the asserted claims failed to recite patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The court denied Fitbit’s motion as to the claims of the ‘105 and ‘299 patents and granted Fitbit’s motion to dismiss as to the ‘301 patent claims.

The ‘105 Patent

The ‘105 patent is directed to a haptic feedback device such as a touchpad that provides haptic feedback to computer users based on a position of a cursor on a display, e.g., a haptic signal when the cursor is moved over an icon. The haptic feedback “can assist and inform the user of interactions and events within a graphical user interface or other environment and ease cursor targeting tasks.” (‘105 patent at column 2, lines 63-66.)

Claim 19, chosen as representative, recites:

19. A haptic feedback device, comprising:

one or more processors configured to receive an input signal and generate a force signal based on the input signal,

wherein the input signal is associated with a user-independent event,

the user-independent event comprising one or more of a reminder event, an initiation of a task, a processing of the task, a conclusion of the task, a receipt of an email, or an event occurring in a game; and

one or more actuators configured to receive the force signal and impart a haptic effect based on the force signal.

The court conducted an Alice/Mayo analysis of claim 19. Rejecting Fitbit’s characterization of claim 19 as being directed to “vibrating to communicate that an event that is independent of the user of a device, e.g., receipt of an email, has occurred” the court cited Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d (Fed. Cir. 2016), for the proposition that the [Alice test] step one requires claims to be considered “in light of the specification, based on whether their ‘character as a whole’ is directed to excluded subject matter.” The court further noted that under Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175 (1981), and Thales Visionex Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d (Fed. Cir. 2017), “simply incorporating an abstract idea in part of a claim that is otherwise directed to patentable subject matter does not necessarily render the entire claim ineligible.”

Applying the above, the court characterized claim 19 to be directed to “a device that provides haptic feedback to communicate that one of several predetermined user-independent events has occurred.”

Based on this characterization, the court found that “[t]he weight of the claim clearly focuses on a tangible, non-abstract device as the invention which, through the allegedly unconventional combination of components, contains the new and useful feature of notifying the device’s user of independent events through vibration.” The court concluded that “Immersion’s invention of a touchpad or other similar device that provides haptic feedback is a new arrangement of known components that solves the problem of how to provide non-audio, non-visual notification to a user. Such an invention is patent-eligible.”

The ‘299 Patent

The ‘299 patent is directed to systems and methods for monitoring motion parameters of an object manipulated by a user and providing notification once a certain target is reached. For example, one embodiment discussed in the specification is a toothbrush that monitors the number of brush strokes that a user has completed. When the number of strokes reaches a predetermined threshold, the device provides a haptic output indicating that the threshold has been reached.

Claim 14 was analyzed as representative. It recites:

14. An apparatus comprising:

a sensor that senses motion of at least a portion of the apparatus and provides a sensor output based on the sensed motion;

a timer that provides a periodic timer output;

a vibrotactile device responsive to the timer that provides a corresponding periodic haptic output; and

a processing device that receives the sensor output and accumulates counts associated with the sensor output, the processing device providing an output to the vibrotactile device providing an output to the vibrotactile device once a threshold associated with the accumulated counts is reached.

The analysis of claim 14 of the ‘299 patent proceeded along the same lines as claim 19 of the ‘105 patent. The court rejected Fitbit’s characterization of claim 14 as directed to the abstract idea of vibrating to communicate when a motion threshold has been reached.” Rather, the court characterized claim 14 as an apparatus that senses motion, counts the number of motions that occur, and notifies a user through haptic feedback once a threshold number of motions occur. Again citing Thales, the court found that the claimed invention was not directed to an abstract idea, but rather to “a tangible device comprising a new and useful arrangement of components that solves the problem of now to notify a user that a predetermined number of motions have occurred in an environment where audio and visual alerts would not be effective.”

As support for this conclusion, the court cited Core Wireless Licensing S.A.R.L. v. LG Electronics, Inc., 880 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2018, precedential). In Core Wireless, the Federal Circuit cited four other cases (Enfish, Thales, Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp., 867 F.3d 1253, 1262 (Fed. Cir. 2017), and Finjan, Inc. v. Blue Coat Systems, Inc., No. 2016-2520 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 10, 2018)), in which “the Federal Circuit found that the claims recited a specific improvement over prior systems, which meant that the claims were not abstract.” (Core Wireless at 1363, emphasis added.)

Here again, finding claim 14 not an abstract idea, the court did not reach the second step of the Alice/Mayo test.

The 301 Patent

The court granted dismissal of the complaint to the extent based on the ‘301 patent. The ‘301 patent is directed to systems and methods for mobile devices to be configured to exchange data or messages with each other via network interfaces and provide haptic effects partially based on the exchanged data or messages transmitting haptic messages. Representative claim 27 recites:

27. A system comprising:

a processor configured to:

receive a first sensor signal from a first sensor, the first sensor configured to detect a movement of a first mobile device;

receive a second sensor signal from a second sensor, the second sensor configured to detect an interaction with the first mobile device;

receive a first data signal from the network interface, the network interface configured to receive signals transmitted by a second mobile device;

determine a change in a display signal based at least in part on the first data signal and the second sensor signal;

determine a change in a display signal based at least in part on the first data signal and the second sensor signal;

determine a haptic effect based at least in part on the first data signal; and

output the haptic effect.

The court interpreted claim 27 to be “directed to receiving sensor and data signals, analyzing those signals, and outputting other signals in response.” The court found that claim 27 “did not provide any limiting rules or algorithms that describe how the processor performs these functions” and was directed to an abstract idea for two reasons.

First, claim 27 falls within the category of gathering and processing information, which the Federal Circuit has established is an abstract idea, citing Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom S.A., 830 F.3d 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The first three functions that the processor is configured to perform are receiving sensor and data signals.

Second, claim 27 is analogous to claims the Federal Circuit has held to be directed to an abstract idea in part because they use function-based claiming. Claim 27 requires receiving sensor and data signals, determining a resulting change in display, and determining a resulting haptic effect, but “[t]here is nothing in claim [27] that is directed to how to implement” these functions.

Finding claim 27 directed to an abstract idea, the court proceeded with the second step of the Alice analysis. Again citing to Electric Power Group, the court found that claim 27 follows a conventional order of receiving, processing and outputting data. There is nothing in the ordered combination of the elements of claim 27 to bring it outside the realm of the abstract idea of data collection and analysis.

Lessons for Practice

This is yet another case in support of the proposition that software claims for processing data can be patent-eligible. The court found claims not directed to abstract ideas when it could find an answer to the question of “how the processor performs these functions.” It never reached step two of the Alice/Mayo analysis. Providing some detail in the claims such as algorithms or limiting rules, along with some support in the specification identifying a technological improvement can go a long way in overcoming the patent-eligibility hurdle.

This case also illustrates that, for patent practitioners, Core Wireless (discussed previously in this blog, see link above), the recent precedential decision from the Federal Circuit, provides a strong tool for defending software claims directed to data-processing applications.