The Race Between Tech Companies for Patent Ownership in the Development of Immersive Virtual Experiences

The Race Between Tech Companies for Patent Ownership in the Development of Immersive Virtual Experiences

Michelle Mao is an IPilogue Writer and an incoming 2L JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

The fantastical and mind-blowing virtual worlds of Ready Player One and Sword Art Online may soon be within reach as the patent race for virtual reality technology heats up between major companies like Disney, Microsoft, and Sony. Virtual reality has been dubbed by entertainment and media companies as the next big advancement in modern-day lifestyle. The appeal of virtual reality has been further developed as people have been cooped up in their homes for over two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The desire to feel connected while in the comfort and safety of one’s home can be uniquely targeted by innovations in virtual reality.  

To get to that immersive ideal, companies are racing to own patents for innovative, user-friendly technologies that would entice everyday consumers to use virtual reality platforms in a hassle-free way. One notable example is Meta’s (formerly known as Facebook) ownership of a wearable magnet technology that can track a user’s body poses when worn around the torso. Apple, on the other hand, owns the patent for a wearable device on the thumbs, where the user can manipulate objects in virtual and mixed reality environments. Notably, both devices are less bulky than current-day VR headsets and allow for much finer control over a virtual avatar’s interaction within a virtual environment. Companies are racing to patent the most comfortable options for VR hardware. 

As a result, thousands of patents are being bought up by large tech companies. In the fourth quarter of 2021, Magic Leap, Microsoft, and Samsung continue to top other companies in the number of new AR/VR patents assigned.  

What does this mean for Future Patent Issues in the Virtual Reality Context?

As the patent collections of large corporations grow and products begin to materialize, one should expect an increase in patent litigation surrounding virtual reality soon.  In the face of increased patent litigation, IP lawyers and lawmakers interacting with the AR/VR patent landscape should consider 2 potential problems.

 AR/VR developers face two different legal interests that IP lawyers must balance when advising these developers Firstly, developers and the companies they are employed at want broad protection of their patented innovation. They want their patents, when read at the “broadest reasonable interpretation,”, to sufficiently block competitors from infringing on their patentable innovation. The patent must be strong enough to sufficiently protect the level of investment and time spent on developing an innovation – which is especially important in AR/VR patent issues, where development is costly but the profits can be even greater.

Second, developers want to be protected from patent litigation. The descriptions of their patent must also be detailed and fully described such that other competitors cannot accuse them of intellectual property theft.

IP lawyers may need to navigate the increasing practice of non-practicing entity (NPE) litigation when working with AR/VR developers. With the thousands of patents being issued around AR/VR technology each quarter, it is not surprising that NPEs are purchasing patents to assert their patent rights against companies to earn settlement money or damages from litigation. Thus, IP lawyers and companies targeted by NPE litigation must learn to prepare themselves in the AR/VR patent world, where patent issuance moves at a much faster pace than ever before.

While the pace of patent issuance in AR/VR can bring a diverse set of issues that IP lawyers must navigate in an already fast-paced legal environment, the developments and innovations surrounding AR/VR technology are exciting. It will be interesting to see how the legal profession and policymakers step up to deal with these issues as AR/VR technology continues its trajectory into modern, everyday living.