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Projection effects in a 3D motion graphical user interface: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on the concept of a three-dimensional motion graphical user interface. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2371/17 (Animated 3D-GUI/SAMSUNG) of 7.7.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

Guiding a user’s eyes by certain graphical projection effects only relies on the user’s preferences and thus cannot confer a technical character to the projection effects.

The property that a time delay to move the eyes is “comfortable” or not for a user is heavily dependent on the user’s preferences and cannot be related to a technical effect.

The invention

This European patent application relates to a three-dimensional motion graphical user interface (MGUI).

Compared to conventional two-dimensional GUIs, which are flat and static, three-dimensional GUIs are multi-level and dynamic, according to the application. When communicating information to a user, the three-dimensional GUI is advantageous in that it is more visual and pleasing to the user. However, occasionally, a two-dimensional GUI is said to be more effective than a three-dimensional GUI. For example, in the case of text, a larger amount of information can be communicated in a two-dimensional plane, and it is easier for the user to read information using the two-dimensional GUI.

According to the patent application, in the conventional three-dimensional user interface, three-dimensional information and two-dimensional information cannot be displayed such that the three-dimensional information and the two-dimensional information can be dynamically associated with each other.

The application formulates its aim as to provide a three-dimensional motion graphical user interface capable of effectively displaying information and pleasing to a user and an apparatus and a method of providing the same.

Fig. 6a of EP 1 780 632
Fig. 6a of EP 1 780 632

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The first-instance examining division had refused the patent application based on lack of inventive step.

The board of appeal based its inventive-step assessment on a document that describes a graphical user interface which displays headlines of news stories on a polyhedral graphical object. By clicking on one of the faces of the polyhedral object, the corresponding news story is displayed in full in a pop-up window under the corresponding headline.

Claim 1 essentially differed from this prior art by displaying second information on a projected surface using projection effects. Here is how the board considered this difference:

With respect to the other features of claim 1, the board agrees with the findings of the examining division that the identified distinguishing feature of displaying the second information on a projected surface using projection effects represents a mere presentation of information. An association between the first and second displayed information, as claimed, is achieved in D3 by having the same headline displayed on the selected face of the polyhedral object and in the pop-up window, which can both be viewed by the user.

It thus remained to be seen whether the projection effects achieved a technical effect over the prior art:

All the effects that the appellant considers to be achieved by the projection effects actually rely on the user’s preferences and do not contribute to any technical effect and/or are already achieved by the method of D3. In particular, guiding the user’s eyes from the selected face to the projected surface, as well as a one-to-one correspondence, is clearly achieved in D3 when the large pop-up window having the same headline (72, Figure 9) appears above the polyhedral object (60, Figure 9) showing the selected face in a prominent position. A definitive advantage of the eye guiding provided by the projection effects over the eye guiding achieved by D3 could only rely on the user’s preferences and thus cannot confer a technical character to the projection effects. The appellant has further argued that using projection effects would save space on the projected surface and thus enable this surface to display more second information, in contrast to the pop-up window in D3 that must display the headline in addition to the second information. However, in the board’s view, the projection effects themselves take up space on the display and thus limit the size of the projected surface and by consequence the display space dedicated to the second information.

Therefore, claim 1 of the main request was found not to involve an inventive step.

Concerning auxiliary request II, the appellant argued that the projection effects provide a small time delay which provides the user with a comfortable amount of time to move their eyes from focusing on the polyhedron object to focusing on the second information on the projected surface. However, the board noted:

The board first notes that no such time delay is defined in claim 1 or even mentioned in the description. Second, the property that a time delay to move the eyes is “comfortable” or not for a user is heavily dependent on the user’s preferences and cannot be related to a technical effect.

In auxiliary request V, the appellant tried to define an animation on the graphical user interface upon the user selecting a face of the polyhedral object. Also this did not convince the board:

The board agrees in substance with the examining division that the effects of this animation are of an aesthetic nature and relate to psychological and cognitive aspects of the human user such that the animation features do in fact merely represent a presentation of information. Moreover, opening a face of a three-dimensional icon is a well-known feature in the field of graphical user interfaces, as illustrated by D4 (see Figures 9A and 9B). The appellant has argued that a technical effect of this animation is to better attract the visual attention of the user. In the board’s view, this effect depends mainly on the user’s preferences and does not represent a technical effect on which an inventive step argument can be based.

In the end, none of the requests were found to involve a non-obvious technical contribution, and thus the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2371/17 (Animated 3D-GUI/SAMSUNG) of 7.7.2020

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Presenting clinical statistics to help identify previous similar medical cases: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on the concept of presenting clinical statistics to help identify previous similar medical cases. It gives an concise summary of the test for assessing whether an invention falls into the “presentation of information” exclusion. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1091/17 (Clinical statistics/PHILIPS) of 4.6.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

The view that the reference to “presentations of information” in Article 52(2)(d) EPC was meant to relate exclusively to the cognitive content of the presented information (“what is presented”) and not to the manner in which it is presented (“how it is presented”) has not been adopted by the mainstream case law.

The test suggested in the case law to judge whether a presentation of information might exceptionally contribute to the technical character of the invention is to assess whether it credibly assists the user in performing a technical task by means of a continued and guided human-machine interaction process.

The invention

This European patent application relates to searching for case-based decision support in medical applications.

Case-based clinical decision support systems (CDSS) known from the prior art can assist physicians by identifying previous cases that have been diagnosed and treated, and are similar to the case under evaluation. According to the application, current case-based CDSS systems mostly present similar cases based on only image-based information and fail to incorporate patient medical history, which plays an important role in the diagnostic process. Moreover, previously known systems lack transparency as to why certain cases are retrieved.

Fig. 2 of EP 2 229 644
Fig. 2 of EP 2 229 644

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The first-instance examining division had refused the patent application based on lack of inventive step.

The board of appeal based its inventive-step assessment on a document which disclosed an iterative method for querying medical images in a database in which initial queries are refined in subsequent iterations or interactive “loops”. The board agreed with the appellant that this document did not disclose calculating statistics on the basis of clinical information associated with the set of similar images, presenting these statistics to the user and receiving subsequent user input based on these statistics.

The appellant emphasized the fact that claim 1 presents the calculated statistics together with the set of similar cases. In the appellant’s view, the case law consistently distinguished between what is presented to the user (statistics) and how it is presented (together with the set of similar cases). Since, in this case, presenting the statistics together with the similar cases involved how the information is presented rather than what is presented, it was not a presentation of information as such.

Here’s how the board responded:

The board is aware of a few exceptional decisions of the boards of appeal (see T 1749/06, point 4.1.3, second sentence; T 651/12, page 16, first full sentence) expressing the view that the reference to “presentations of information” in Article 52(2)(d) EPC was meant to relate exclusively to the cognitive content of the presented information (“what is presented”) and not to the manner in which it is presented (“how it is presented”). Nevertheless, this view has not been adopted by the mainstream case law in the course of legal development (cf. G 3/08, Headnote 4). The predominant view in the case law is what T 1235/07 (see point 11) calls the “wider view”, according to which both what is presented and how it is presented are considered to be “presentations of information” (see T 1143/06, points 3.4, 3.5 and 5.4; T 1741/08, point 2.1.10; T 1214/09, point 4.8.1; T 1562/11, point 2.7, last paragraph; T 1802/13, page 10, first full paragraph).

This view has also been adopted by the European Patent Office for its practice (see Guidelines for Examination in the European Patent Office, November 2019 edition, G-II.3.7).

Therefore, the appellant’s argument that the distinguishing features do not relate to presentations of information does not convince the board.

The board also commented on the relevant test for identifying whether an invention relates to a presentation of information “as such”:

Irrespective of whether an invention relates to “what is presented” or “how it is presented”, the test suggested in the case law to judge whether a presentation of information might exceptionally (see T 1741/08, point 3.3, last paragraph) contribute to the technical character of the invention is to assess whether it credibly assists the user in performing a technical task by means of a continued and guided human-machine interaction process (see T 336/14, Headnote and T 1802/13, page 10, second full paragraph).

A prerequisite for this test is the proper formulation of the technical task performed by the user. The appellant referred in its written submissions to a “medical task”. This level of generality would not be sufficient since not every task performed in medicine is a technical task. Indeed an example given by the appellant (“if the statistics, e.g. show that seven out of eight retrieved cases belong to patients with cancer, then the user can derive that the case under evaluation might have something to do with cancer”) illustrates this point. The example implies that the alleged technical task is a diagnostic task. However, besides technical tasks carried out mainly in the examination phase involving the collection of data, diagnosis involves tasks of a predominantly non-technical nature such as the deductive decision phase, which is a purely intellectual exercise (see G 1/04, point 6.4.1). The “medical task” in the appellant’s example relates to the purely intellectual deductive decision phase and therefore cannot be accepted as a technical task.

The appellant then argued, in analogy to T 643/00 (see Catchword, second sentence), that searching and retrieving medical cases stored in a database was the relevant technical task. The board could accept this as a suitable formulation. The question to be answered then is whether the invention credibly assists the user in performing this technical task by means of a continued and guided human-machine interaction process.

Here the appellant argued that the presentation of the calculated statistics together with the set of similar cases assisted the user, typically a physician, in performing the technical task of searching for a medical case more efficiently and reliably. This provided helpful information to guide the physician in concentrating their search and thus obtaining the desired case more quickly, which was a technical effect. The appellant also argued that the mere fact that mental activities on the user’s part were involved did not necessarily render this effect non-technical.

But the board did not agree:

This argumentation relies heavily on the wording of T 643/00, point 17, but removes it from its proper context. The borrowed wording is preceded by the following text: “the functions/steps of processing the images in a specific format, i.e. a predetermined plural number of images in a side-by-side manner at a low level of resolution, and allowing selection and display of an image at higher resolutions [provide information to the the user in the form of a technical tool for an intellectual task he has to master]”. It is thus clear that the deciding board in T 643/00 did not give a carte blanche for deeming technical any information that supports a user in performing a technical task (see also T 1741/08, point 2.1.12, “not everything that supports a technical task has itself a technical character”). It made this statement for the very specific case of a particular display technique defined in terms of an objective technical criterion, namely image resolution. This has also been the common understanding in subsequent case law (see e.g. T 1741/08, point 2.1.13; T 336/14, point 1.2.6; T 581/14, point 16.19). The effect of image resolution on the user is an objective physiological effect which can qualify as a credible technical effect (see T 1442/16, point 1.8, last paragraph), unlike the effect of presenting clinical statistics in the case in hand, which relies on a chain broken by semantic or cognitive processing (see T 1741/08, point 2.1.6). Therefore, T 643/00 does not help the appellant’s case.

The appellant was not able to convince the board that the distinguishing features of claim 1 of the main request produced a technical effect. Therefore, claim 1 of the main request does not involve an inventive step (Article 56 EPC).

Also the auxiliary requests filed by the appellant did not change this assessment, so that the appeal was eventually dismissed.

More information

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Displaying appointment requests and surrounding appointments in a mini-calendar format: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on the concept of displaying an appointment request and its surrounding appointments in a mini-calendar format to avoid that the user has to switch to the calendar module. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1750/13 (Scheduling opportunity previewer/Microsoft Technology Licensing, LLC) of 1.10.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

A requirement for describing what a user wants to see is a non-technical rule or scheme and its arrangement on a display resulting in a “mini-calendar” format is a mere presentation of information.

The invention

This European patent application relates to a previewer which displays a request to add a new appointment or meeting to the user’s calendar which takes account of the surrounding appointments in the user’s calendar. The preview is displayed in a “mini-calendar format” which is a miniature view of the user’s calendar in the user’s current context. The “mini-calendar format” shows conflicting and/or adjacent appointments:

Fig. 6 of EP 2 304 658
Fig. 6 of EP 2 304 658

The invention allows a user to make a decision on how to handle a request for a new appointment, e.g. to accept, decline, propose new time, without having to switch the “context”, in other words, the user does not have to open their calendar module in order to make this decision.

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The first-instance examining division had refused the patent application based on a lack of inventive step. In the summons to oral proceedings, the board expressed a preliminary view that the refusal was justified. In the decision, the board points out:

In order to make an informed decision, any kind of scheduling and planning activity requires a user to have information at hand about appointments in his or her calendar which are potentially conflicting or surrounding the new appointment. In the Board’s judgement this information and its provision simply form part of an administrative or business scheme and a presentation of information. The features of claim 1 of receiving a proposed scheduling opportunity or appointment (feature i), retrieving the context of one or more surrounding appointments [from the user’s calendar] (feature ii) and displaying the result (feature iii) to the user in a specific format [for allowing it to make a decision about whether to accept or decline the new appointment] are a computer implementation of this scheme.

The established approach for dealing with mixed-type inventions is the “COMVIK approach” (T 641/00 – Two identities / COMVIK), according to which the non-technical features cannot contribute to inventive step.

The issue in this appeal is thus whether the above mentioned scheme has any technical features or effects. If not, then claim 1 of the main request is merely a straightforward implementation of the scheme on a general purpose computer, which would not involve an inventive step.

One argument of the appellant was that the claimed “previewer system” was a technical feature. The board, however, did not follow this argument:

The Board notes that in text processing, previewing a document means displaying it on a screen instead of, or prior to, printing it. The purpose is to inform a user about the look of a document, whether the formatting is correct, thereby avoiding the waste of paper. In other fields, a preview of information is a visualisation of a subset of information, such as a summary of the content of a book on a book cover, of selected fields of its bibliographic data. The purpose is to inform a person about a book without obliging him to read its full content.

In the Board’s judgement, both are a mere presentation of information which does not lead to a technical effect and therefore does not have technical character.

Secondly, the appellant argued that a “mini-calendar format” should be regarded as technical feature:

The feature “mini-calendar format” refers to a miniature view of the user’s calendar in the user’s current context, see paragraph [0020]. It is employed in the application to limit the information to be displayed to those appointments which are in conflict or which are close to the proposed appointment. However, in the context of scheduling appointments, which is an administrative activity, a user evidently only needs to consider the “surrounding” and “conflicting” appointments, other appointments are not relevant for him to decide. In the Board’s view, a requirement for describing what a user wants to see is a non-technical rule or scheme and its arrangement on a display resulting in a “mini-calendar” format is a mere presentation of information.

The appellant had also argued that displaying the “scheduling opportunity” in a mini-calendar format with the context of surrounding appointments achieved three technical effects:

  1. it saved time and resources because only a minimum number of surrounding appointments needed to be retrieved
  2. it improved user-friendliness and usability because the context of surrounding appointments for a “scheduling opportunity” was retrieved
  3. it saved resources because a user did not need to open a separate calendar

But also this did not persuade the board:

However, in the Board’s view, the effects identified are too vague and would be mere bonus effects. They depend on the underlying computer system on which the information is to be displayed, which means that on certain devices resources may be saved, while on others there may be no such saving effect. For example, the need for less storage space is an (inevitable) bonus effect of choosing which data to consider. Moreover, the effects have a subjective aspect, depending on the respective user. For example, while a miniature display may be user-friendly for one user, it may not be the case for another user who prefers to handle his or her appointments in a separate calendar application.

Therefore, claim 1 was found to lack an inventive step, and the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1750/13 (Scheduling opportunity previewer/Microsoft Technology Licensing, LLC) of 1.10.2019

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Privacy protection by linking customer data with a key instead of personally identifiable information: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on the concept of linking customer data with a key instead of personally identifiable information to improve privacy protection. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1150/13 (Linking data/TRA) of 26.5.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

The protection of privacy, by replacing PII (an address) with non-PII (a key) is not technical. It is an administrative scheme or a mental act.

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to the protection of privacy of information.

The invention includes a “tier of a processing system configured to receive data”, wherein said tier may e.g. cover a marketing research company. The market research company compiles data about households for measuring the effectiveness of advertisements. The data is received from one or more data suppliers, including a digital television set-top-box (DTSB) that supplies clickstream data and other data relating to the household’s viewing habits.

The received data comprises a “first identifier”. This could be a customer account number used as an identifier of the household by the data supplier. In order to link data relating to the same household from different data suppliers, there is a “thesaurus” that does just that. The thesaurus seems to be generated by a third party entity (“list matcher”) that is trusted with personally identifiable information. The list matcher uses household addresses to link the account numbers (“first identifiers”) from different data suppliers and assigns a “key” (TRA_KEY) to each household. The key does not contain any PII.

The marketing research company obtains the thesaurus from the third party and uses it to link customer account numbers relating to the same household. Since neither the customer account numbers, nor the thesaurus, contains PII, privacy can be preserved.

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (sole request)

Is it technical?

The first-instance examining division considered that claim 1 contained a mix of technical and non-technical features. In fact, the core features of the invention summarized above were considered to be abstract, administrative steps devoid of technical character. As the avid reader will know, non-technical features do not enter the inventive-step analysis under the COMVIK approach.

The appellant argued that the invention saved bandwidth and improved data security. The bandwidth savings came from the use of a central authority for generating the link between data from different sources. Without it, the marketing research company would have to obtain and store many different customer IDs. But the board did not agree:

The Board, however, does not see that the invention provides any savings in bandwidth. Neither claim 1 nor the description defines the amount of data stored at and sent between the different entities. Indeed, bandwidth savings is not mentioned as an issue anywhere in the application. The data needs to be stored somewhere within the system, and although a central data store might have some benefits, it creates overhead as well.

In the Board’s view, the role of the central List matcher has to do with trust and not with storage/bandwidth. For some reason, the List matcher has access to PII, which allows it to generate the link between different customer accounts. This is an administrative rather than a technical issue.

Furthermore, the Board takes the view that the protection of privacy, by replacing PII (an address) with non-PII (a key) is not technical. It is an administrative scheme or a mental act.

Therefore, the board concluded that the invention merely amounts to the implementation of a non-technical method on a computer system. Claim 1 was found to lack an inventive step, and the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1150/13 (Linking data/TRA)

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Training of an artificial neural network

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on determining cardiac output by the aid of an artificial neural network. The decision gives some very relevant clues as to how specific the neural network, and its adaptation to the particular use-case, has to be described in the application. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0161/18 (Äquivalenter Aortendruck/ARC SEIBERSDORF) of 12.5.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Catchwords*

  1. The present invention which is based on machine learning in particular in connection with an artificial neural network is insufficiently disclosed, because the training of the artificial neural network according to the invention cannot be carried out due to a lack of disclosure.
  2. Because in the present case the claimed method differs from the prior art only by an artificial neural network, the training of which is not disclosed in detail, using the artificial neural network does not lead to a special technical effect which could be the basis for an inventive step.

* (inofficial translation of the decision)

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to a method for determining cardiac output. Cardiac output is a term used in cardiac physiology that describes the volume of blood pumped by the heart per unit of time. The patent application describes a variety of known ways to determine cardiac output, all of them being invasive and thus “expensive, impractical and reserved to intensive medicine”.

Furthermore, the application describes it as known to perform a pressure measurement non-invasively in a peripheral region as an indicator of the cardiac output. However, the arterial blood pressure measured at the periphery is distorted as compared to the aortic pressure, thus requiring the peripheral blood pressure curve to be mapped onto a corresponding central blood pressure curve, i.e. onto the equivalent aortic pressure. Such a transformation of the blood pressure curve is, according to the patent application, extremely complex.

The patent application therefore aims to provide a method for determining cardiac output which, based on the arterial blood pressure curve measured at the periphery, enables the precise determination of the cardiac output, wherein computational expenditures are to be kept within reasonable limits in order to enable its integration in a mobile appliance.

Fig. 3 of EP 1 955 228
Fig. 3 of EP 1 955 228

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (inofficial translation)

Is it patentable?

The first-instance examining division had refused the patent application because it had found the independent claims to be obvious in view of the prior art. But the board of appeal took a step back and raised an objection under Art. 83 EPC (insufficient disclosure), in addition to lack of inventive step (Art. 56 EPC).

Insofar, the EPC requires that the European patent application has to disclose the invention in a manner sufficiently clear and complete for it to be carried out by a person skilled in the art. The board added that to this end, the disclosure of the invention in the application has to enable the skilled person to reproduce the technical teaching underlying the claimed invention based on his/her common general knowledge.

Here is how the board assessed the invention against these principles (the citations in this article are translations of the German decision):

The present application uses an artificial neural network to transform the blood pressure curve measured at the periphery into the equivalent aortic pressure. With regards to the training of the neural network of the invention, the application merely discloses that the input data should cover a broad spectrum of patients of different age, gender, constitutional type, health condition and the like, to avoid a specialization of the network. But the application does not disclose which input data is suitable for training the artificial neural network of the invention, or at least a data record suitable for solving the underlying technical problem. Hence, the training of the artificial neural network cannot be reproduced by the person skilled in the art and the person skilled in the art therefore cannot carry out the invention. The present invention based on machine learning in particular in the context of an artificial neural network thus is insufficiently disclosed, because the training of the invention cannot be reproduced due to a lack of disclosure.

As a result, the board decided that the application does not meet the requirements of Art. 83 EPC.

Turning to inventive step, the application aims at a precise determination of the cardiac output while keeping the computational requirements within reasonable limits. The board, however, decided that the claimed solution does not involve an inventive step:

Claim 1 solves this problem with the aid of an artificial neural network, the weighting values of which are determined by learning. The appellant argued that the use of an artificial neural network has the technical effect that the cardiac output based on the arterial blood curve measured at the periphery can be determined reliably and precisely taking into account the narrow-band nature and resonance phenomena in the low frequency range of the transmission path between the aorta and the periphery, wherein the computation efforts are kept within reasonable boundaries, which allows an integration into a mobile and handy device. The board is not convinced that the artificial neural network of claim 1 takes into account the narrow-band nature and resonance phenomena in the low frequency range of the transmission path between the aorta and the periphery, because neither the claim nor the description contains details about the training of the artificial neural network. The board holds that the mere mentioning that weighting values are determined by learning does not go beyond the normal understanding of an artificial neural network by the person skilled in the art. In the present case, the claimed neural network is thus not adapted for a specific claimed application. According to the board, only a non-specific adaptation of the weighting values is performed, which is part of the nature of every artificial neural network. Therefore, the board is not convinced that the argued technical effect is achieved in the claimed method over the whole range. This effect can thus not be considered in the sense of an improvement over the prior art when assessing inventive step.

Since the subject-matter of claim 1 does not lead to an improvement over the prior art, the objective problem is to provide an alternative to the method disclosed in the closest prior art. The solution of this problem (using an artificial neural network, the weighting values of which are determined by training) does not involve an inventive step. The use of artificial neural networks not only follows a general technological trend, it was also known for the transformation of the blood pressure curve measured at the periphery into the equivalent aortic pressure. […]

Therefore, claim 1 was also found not to involve an inventive step, and the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0161/18 (Äquivalenter Aortendruck/ARC SEIBERSDORF) of 12.5.2020

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Improved weather forecasting: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on the concept of improving a weather forecast based on specific weather measures, e.g. temperature, precipitation or wind speed. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1798/13 (Forecasting the value of a structured financial product/SWISS REINSURANCE COMPANY LTD) of 25.5.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Catchwords

The “weather” is not a technical system that the skilled person can improve, or even simulate with the purpose of trying to improve it. It is a physical system that can be modelled in the sense of showing how it works. This kind of modelling is rather a discovery or a scientific theory, which are excluded under Article 52(2)(a) EPC and thus do not contribute to the technical character of the invention (see point 2.10ff.).

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to forecasting the value of weather-based structured financial products. The values of these products are based on specific weather measures, e.g. temperature, precipitation, hours of sunshine, heating degree days, cooling degree days or wind speed.

In Fig. 2, the forecast value of the product S13 is based on forecasted weather data S11 for a defined time period and a defined geographical area relevant to the financial product S12. A quality indicator S34 is calculated, based on the accuracy of the forecasted weather data S31 compared to reference weather data S32, S21. This is said to “enable[] both investors and providers of the financial product to make better-informed decisions concerning the value of the financial product” (page 2, last paragraph). The quality indicator is used S4 to calculate the final value of the financial product S41.

Fig. 2 of EP1958141
Fig. 2 of EP1958141

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (sole request)

Is it technical?

The first-instance examining division had refused the patent application for lack of inventive step, “because no technical problem was overcome”. More precisely, the division considered that the invention had two aspects: a) defining and calculating a weather forecast, and b) defining and calculating the influence of the weather forecast on a particular financial product. The division could not find a technical problem solved by the implementation of either of these aspects.

On the one hand, the appellant agreed that the use of the weather forecast to define a financial product had no technical character. But on the other hand, according to the appellant, the invention improved the reliability and predictability of weather forecast data in general, which was a technical problem.

The appellant provided three main arguments. The first argument was that the forecasting was based on specified weather measures, such as temperature, precipitation, hours of sunshine, heating degree days, cooling degree days or wind speed, which represented physical, hence technical data. Here is what the board said:

Regarding the first argument, the Board agrees that a system for weather forecasting, for example, comprising sensors for measuring specific weather data, has technical character. The invention, however, relies on the use of already measured weather data. It could be argued that this (raw) weather data represents measurements about the physical world and is therefore also technical. The situation would thus be similar to that in T 2079/10 (Steuerung von zellulär aufgebauten Alarm-systemen / SWISSRE), reasons 4.2 and 4.3, which considered that physical parameters represent technical data and the choice of which physical parameters are to be measured are competences of the technical skilled person.

In T 2079/10, however, the invention was seen to lie in the improvement of the measurement technique itself, which involved technical considerations about the sensors and their positions. In the present case, the measurements themselves do not play a role, the improvement is in the processing of data to provide a better weather forecast.

Secondly, the appellant argued that the invention did not only retrieve and use the measurement data, but specifically calculated and further processed reference weather data and forecasted weather data. These steps operated on physical data and achieved the technical effect of improving this data. The boards reaction was as follows:

The applicant’s second argument is essentially that also an improvement in the weather data by calculating and further processing it is also technical. In the Board’s view this leads to the key issue in this case, namely whether improving the accuracy of given data of a weather forecast is technical. If it is not, then the details of the algorithm, the “mathematics” as the division put it, does not help.

The Board judges that it is not. The “weather” is not a technical system that the skilled person can improve, or even simulate with the purpose of trying to improve it. It is a physical system that can be modelled in the sense of showing how it works. In the Board’s view, this kind of modelling is rather a discovery or a scientific theory, which are excluded under Article 52(2)(a) EPC.

As Mellulis puts it (see Benkard, EPC, 3rd ed. (2019) on Art. 52, paragraph 232, translation from German by the Board): like the discovery, scientific theories also contain instructions for (technical) action. They are an attempt at a rational explanation of observed or expected processes based on natural laws or logical considerations. They are frequently based on a knowledge, expectation or presumption of laws, which can also be based on empirically gained knowledge. In terms of content, they resemble discoveries; there is some overlap here. They are not patentable even if they provide an explanation for activities that are in use.

This applies in the Board’s view to the understanding of “weather” in the present application. The modelling of weather in terms of historic or calculated reference data, predictions or established forecast data, trends and seasonal patterns etc. aim at a better understanding of “weather”, of the causal relationships and correlations between different kinds of weather data, thereby enabling better use of previous experiences. Thus, in the Board’s view, the improvement of the data in this case is rather an improvement of a model utilising a scientific theory and thus does not contribute to the technical character of the application.

Furthermore, the parametrisation of these models is ultimately influenced by the business requirements. The application explains at page 1, lines 9 to 26, that weather-based financial instruments have a start date, maturity date, are defined for a specific geographical region and at least one weather condition, such as temperature, precipitation, hours of sunshine, heating degree days, cooling degree days or wind speed. It is also the business person who, as an expert in weather-based financial derivates, has not only expertise about finance, but also about mathematical models and methods and weather-based parameters which are required to define these financial instruments.

The third argument of the appellant was that the calculated quality indicator gave the percentage of improvement in accuracy of the forecast over the reference simulation, and this was a novel and inventive approach because conventional solutions to improve predicability of weather forecasts would have been to provide more sensors and to make more measurements. But also this argument did not succeed in front of teh board:

The appellant’s third argument is that the quality indicator is technical because it improves the data in a way that would conventionally have been done by technical means. In the Board’s view this also fails for the reasons given in the previous paragraph.

The situation in this case is comparable to T 2331/10 (Operating wind turbines / GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY), which concerned forecasting electric power production based on weather forecasts and wind turbine parameters. The Board considered that the improvement lay in the area of modelling and algorithms which by themselves did not achieve a technical effect (reasons 5.2). The Board also found that the predicted forecast data signal was not a physical variable of an underlying technical system and was not linked to its functioning, but it had a business purpose, namely to make sales of electric power generation with increased confidence (reasons 5.4 to 5.5). In the present case, the weather forecast and the quality indicator do not serve a technical purpose, such as improving the measurement system, the collection of measurement data, the arrangement of sensors, or the like, but are (mathematical) values with a business purpose, namely determining the value of the financial product.

The board therefore concluded that the sole technical elements in claim 1 were the storage of data in a database and a computer-implementation. The objective technical problem thus was how to implement the non-technical method of forecasting the value of weather-based financial products on a notoriously-known general purpose computer system. Following the COMVIK approach, claim 1 was found to lack an inventive step, and the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1798/13 (Forecasting the value of a structured financial product/SWISS REINSURANCE COMPANY LTD) of 25.5.2020

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Encrypting/decrypting audio data with reduced latency: technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on a method of encrypting/decrypting audio data without adding substantial latency to the audio processing. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2327/17 (Authenticated encryption of audio data/BOSCH) of 21.2.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

Increasing the cryptographic security of an audio data stream is a technical problem.

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to the encryption and decryption of audio data. According to the background explained in the application, digital audio is typically generated on a certain audio sample frequency, and it is common to collect a larger block of data and protect this data block via encryption. After encryption, the data is processed for the second time to add authenticity (integrity) protection, which is essential for avoiding unauthorized manipulation of data.

However, in scenarios such as live music systems, ultra low latency is required to avoid losing the rhythm for the musician. Since any processing, e.g. analog digital conversion, audio processing, transmission of data, will add latency to the audio data, it is important that encryption and decryption latency are as low as possible, e.g. < 0,05 ms.

Fig. 1 of EP 2 553 862
Fig. 1 of EP 2 553 862

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The board of appeal started its assessment from a prior art document which already disclosed the use of AES in Cipher feedback mode to encrypt/decrypt audio data. The board also took it as common general knowledge that in an encryption/decryption scheme in cipher feedback mode, the need for additional synchronisation is removed and that without knowing an initialisation vector from the encryption it takes the number of bits from a cipher-block before the correct data can be decrypted.

Claim 1 therefore differed from the closest prior art in that it comprises the further step of detecting whether a CMAC authenticity check is successful from a single audio sample and that the method is performed on a sample by sample basis with a latency less than 1 mys.

First of all, it was questionable whether the feature “with a latency less than 1 mys” in claim 1 was clear, or amounted merely to a result to be achieved:

With respect to the feature “with a latency less than 1 mys”, the appellant argued that this feature was implied by the choice of a length of 24 bits for the audio sample which resulted in a CMAC authenticity check in less than 1 mys. The length of an audio sample being however not defined in claim 1, the board agrees with the decision under appeal (see point 7.2.8) that defining that the latency is less than 1 mys amounts to merely define a result to be achieved.

Secondly, also the feature “the method is performed on a sample by sample basis” had been objected as vague and unclear in the first instance decision. Here is what the board said:

In respect of interpretation of the vague and broad feature “the method is performed on a sample by sample basis”, the appellant argued that it should be interpreted as meaning that not only the CMAC authenticity check but also the AES decryption in Cipher feedback mode were performed on a sample by sample basis. In its view, obtaining a plain 24-bits audio sample, as shown by reference sign 126 in Figure 2 and described on page 5, lines 22 to 24, was an evidence that the decryption was performed on a sample by sample basis. However, the board notes that the decryption of a 24-bits audio sample at stage n + 1 depends on the decryption of the previous sample at stage n, as shown in Figure 2 and as implied by the use of a Cipher feedback mode. The board thus agrees with the decision under appeal (see point 7) that the decryption in AES Cipher feedback mode cannot be interpreted as being performed on a sample by sample basis so that the feature “the method is performed on a sample by sample basis” has to be interpreted as applying CMAC authenticity check on a sample by sample basis.

Turning to inventive step, the board first identified the effect achieved by the features that distinguished the invention from the prior art:

The technical effect of the above-mentioned distinguishing features is that invalid audio samples are detected without having to wait for the large number of audio samples, such as the whole audio data, to be received and decrypted. The objective technical problem can thus be formulated as how to increase the cryptographic security of the audio data stream.

The question was thus whether it was obvious to come up with the invention as claimed to solve the objective technical problem:

The person skilled in cryptography, trying to improve the reliability of a received encrypted audio stream, would obviously consider to use an authentication scheme to add security to the encryption scheme. The skilled person would consider D7 which discloses to split a Voice over IP stream, i.e. an audio stream, into short packets, or chunks, to encrypt them using a conventional encryption scheme, to accompany each chunk with a Message Authentication Code MAC, and to compare the transmitted MAC with a recalculated MAC at reception (see the paragraph bridging pages 274 and 275). It was moreover well known at the priority date of the present application to use block-cipher-based MAC, i.e. CMAC, as MAC. By applying the teaching of D7 to the disclosure of D5 the skilled person would thus arrive at the subject-matter of claim 1 without the exercise of inventive skills.

Therefore, claim 1 was found to lack an inventive step, and the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2327/17 (Authenticated encryption of audio data/BOSCH) of 21.2.2020

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Gesture-based information table transposition: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on the idea of allowing a user to specify, via display gestures, two possible ways of transposing a displayed information table. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1505/17 (Transposition gestures/HUAWEI TECHNOLOGIES) of 17.2.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Allowing a user to specify one of two possible table transpositions is non-technical, reflecting the user’s subjective wish to choose how to transform the table. Indeed, transposing a displayed table, e.g. in the context of a word processor and for editorial reasons, is itself non-technical.

Whether or not a particular input gesture or other kind of input mechanism is intuitive to the user is normally a subjective and not a technical matter.

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to allowing a user to transpose a displayed table such that the columns become rows and the rows become columns. The description relates mainly to mirroring the table in its main diagonal, i.e. from the top-left corner to the bottom-right corner. An example is shown in Fig. 1A (original table) and Fig. 1B (transposed table):

Figs. 1A and 1B of EP 2 645 271
Figs. 1A and 1B of EP 2 645 271

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Claim 1 is directed to a “table graphics management method”. The method first displays a table which has multiple rows and columns. When a “control track for the table” input by an input device is detected, a “moving direction” of the detected control track is determined. In view of dependent claim 3, the “control track” may be a “touch track” entered via a touch input apparatus. Therefore, the board understood the step “detecting a control track” as meaning that an input command in the form of a gesture is detected.

The claim refers only to a single row and column and to “transposing” information from the frames of the row into the frames of the column and vice versa. However, the phrase “so as to acquire a transposed table” and the examples given in the description make it clear that the table as a whole is transposed, resulting in the rows of the table being converted into columns and the columns into rows.

Claim 1 does not specify what is meant by transposing “along the moving direction of the control track”. Based on the disclosure in the application, the user can specify a transposition that transposes corner frame 11 in Figure 1A into corner frame 14 in Figure 1B by inputting a gesture that starts in frame 11 and moves in the general direction of frame 13 (of Figure 1A), i.e. perpendicular to the diagonal in which the table is mirrored. However, the board took the view that the expression “transposing along the moving direction” could also be understood as referring to the transposition that mirrors the table in the diagonal indicated by the “moving direction”. At the oral proceedings, the appellant agreed that both interpretations were possible.

Is it technical?

According to the board, claim 1 differed from the closest prior art in that the control input is a “control track” instead of a button click and in that the table is transposed “along the moving direction of the control track”, allowing the user to specify one of two possible transpositions.

First of all, the board assessed whether the concept of two possible types of transpositions was a technical feature:

In the Board’s judgment, the idea of allowing the user to specify one of the two possible table transpositions is non-technical, reflecting the user’s subjective wish to choose how to transform the table. Indeed, transposing a displayed table, for example in the context of a word processor and for editorial reasons, is itself non-technical. This non-technical idea may thus be included in the formulation of the objective technical problem.

Hence, the objective technical problem to be solved may be formulated as modifying the method of document D1 to allow the user to input commands for the two possible table transpositions.

Accordingly, what had to be assessed was whether enabling two different gestures to solve the problem was non-obvious:

In view of the prevalence of smartphones and tablets at the filing date of the present application, i.e. in April 2012, inputting user interactions by means of gestures, e.g. gestures made by moving a mouse or by moving a stylus or finger over a touch pad or touch screen along a “control track”, was well known in the art. To implement two different control options, one would have had to provide two distinguishable gestures. Distinguishing the two gestures on the basis of their control track’s “moving direction” would have been an obvious possibility, just like a scroll-down gesture was commonly distinguished from a scroll-up gesture by the gesture’s direction.

[…] The skilled person would thus have arrived at the claimed subject-matter without the exercise of inventive skill.

One argument of the appellant was that the use of gestures had several advantages, such as replacing a multitude of clicks and requiring fewer icons to be displayed. The problem to be solved had to be formulated as “modifying the method of document D1 for increasing usability on smaller displays and/or touch screens”. However, the board held that these advantages were among the known and expected advantages of the use of gestures (and indeed are not mentioned in the application as filed) and therefore cannot support an inventive step.

The appellant also argued that the claimed gestures were particularly intuitive. However, also this did not convince the board:

Given the lack of precision in the definition of the claimed gestures (see point 3.5.1 above), the Board is not convinced that the claim encompasses only the use of “intuitive” gestures. In any event, whether or not a particular input gesture or other kind of input mechanism is intuitive to the user is normally a subjective and not a technical matter.

In the end, claim 1 was found to lack an inventive step, and the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1505/17 (Transposition gestures/HUAWEI TECHNOLOGIES)

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Mapping natural language text input to elements of a social-graph database: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on a system for structured queries in social networks, particularly for mapping natural language text input to elements of a social-graph database. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1089/17 (Ambiguous queries on online social networks/FACEBOOK) of 7.2.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Defining a natural language query is per se not a technical task, but lies in a non-technical field.

The invention

This European patent application, filed by Facebook, Inc., generally relates to social graphs and performing searches for objects within a social-networking environment.

The invention proposes a social-networking system that may, in response to a text query received from a user, generate structured queries that include references to particular social-graph elements. By providing suggested structured queries in response to a user’s text query, the social-networking system may provide a way for users of an online social network to search for elements represented in a social graph based on their social-graph attributes and their relation to various social-graph elements.

For example, when a user enters the ambiguous search term “facebook” as part of the search query “people who like facebook” (a shown in the figure below), the online social network may propose several matching elements of the social graph to the user for selection. If the user then selects one of the proposed matching elements (for example, “Facebook”), the system proposes a set of queries related to the selected graph element (for example, “People who work for Facebook”, “People who like Facebook and Stanford”), from which the user can select one to be performed.

Fig. 4C of EP 2 750 056
Fig. 4C of EP 2 750 056

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

Already in the European search opinion, the application was considered to be directed “at a cognitive problem”. In essence, the claim elements related to the social graph were found to be “purely social-administrative”, and the elements related to the query processing were considered to have “a purely cognitive character”. Following the EPO’s appproach for mixed-type inventions, the examiner held that the closest prior art was a general-purpose computer system, and that implementing the non-technical method on such notoriously known hardware was obvious. The examining division essentially maintained this position throughout the prosecution procedure, so that the application was refused for lack of inventive step in first instance.

On appeal, the applicant argued that the operation and function of the claimed search engine may be considered to lie in a technical field. The board agreed as far as none of the cited documents was considered to disclose a search process which maps natural language text input to elements of a social-graph database in the context of a social network. The board therefore took document D5 (a patent application by Facebook itself) as the starting point for assessing inventive step.

The board found that the invention as claimed differed from D5 by “generating a second set of structured queries, each structured query of the second set of structured queries comprising a reference to the selected second node or selected edge”. Here is how the board interpreted these features:

The distinguishing features have the effect of generating a set of exemplary queries regarding a selected element of the social graph. In this respect, the Board observes that the application discloses ranking the structured queries based on advertising sponsorship (description, paragraph [0075]), which seems to suggest that the generated queries may serve a non-technical purpose and result from business considerations.

The claimed generation of queries according to features 8 and 8.1 does not contribute to a “further” technical effect. In particular, the Board does not agree that the human-machine interaction is improved, as no interaction between the user and the system after the disambiguation of the entered data is claimed. The distinguishing features do not involve any further interaction or the display of the generated second set of structured queries to the user.

Moreover, the Board considers that defining a natural language query is per se not a technical task, but lies in a non-technical field. As the claim is entirely silent regarding the user interface for entering search queries, the Board is not convinced that the claimed method solves a technical problem in the area of user interfaces.

The applicant also argued that the fact that claimed subject-matter had some relation to “semantic” aspects did not inevitably imply that it was of non-technical character. Non-technical character could only be affirmed if absolutely no further technical considerations, for example related to the database/search engine and their structure and/or function, were involved. But also this argument did not persuade the board:

The Board is not convinced that the distinguishing features involve any “further technical considerations” (see opinion G 3/08, OJ EPO 2011, 10, Reasons 13.5.1), as the generation of the second set of queries is based on non-technical considerations regarding the desired query semantics in the context of the social graph. The Board observes that the social graph, which is known from document D5, constitutes social data not serving a technical purpose, and the distinguishing features do not define whether or how the social graph as a data structure is used to generate the second set of structured queries.

Lastly, the applicant argued that the generated search term related to the underlying graph structure of the database, so that the invention takes the technical structure of the underlying database and search engine into account, which makes a technical contribution. But the board also did not follow this argument:

However, the social graph is already known from document D5, and the distinguishing features 8 and 8.1 define the generation of the second set of structured queries only in terms of non-technical semantic aspects. Consequently, the Board considers that features 8 and 8.1 are not about exercising technical control over the functioning of the search engine in the sense of decision T 2230/10. Hence, the Board is not persuaded by the appellant’s arguments.

As a result, the board held that the distinguishing features do not contribute to the solution of a technical problem and cannot be considered for the assessment of inventive step. Claim 1 was found to lack an inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1089/17 (Ambiguous queries on online social networks/FACEBOOK)

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Object detection in an augmented reality image: insufficiently disclosed

In this decision, the European Patent Office refused an application in the field of augmented reality, because the claimed object detection technique was not sufficiently disclosed. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0677/17 (Augmented reality, detecting position of apparatus / Sony) of 13.2.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

A European patent application has to disclose the invention so clearly and completely that it can be carried out by a person skilled in the art over essentially the whole scope claimed.

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to apparatuses and a system for presenting an image comprising real space parts and superimposed virtual parts to two users. The positions of the apparatuses used by the users are detected and taken into account.

Fig. 2 of EP 2 352 117
Fig. 2 of EP 2 352 117

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The board had doubts whether the patent application disclosed the invention in a manner sufficiently clear and complete for it to be carried out by a person skilled in the art. The discussion revolved around the feature in claim 1 of “an other terminal detection unit (158) for detecting the image of the other apparatus (20) included in the real space image and for specifying a spatial coordinate of the other apparatus (20) in the spatial coordinate system based on the real space image”.

According to the board, this unit carries out two functions:

  • (a) detecting the image of the other apparatus included in the real space image; and
  • (b) specifying a spatial coordinate of the other apparatus in the spatial coordinate system based on the real space image.

First of all, the board tried to interpret the technical meaning of these features based on the description:

The real space image referred to is, for example, “a landscape captured by an imaging apparatus” (paragraph 44). In particular, a two-dimensional digital image, as taken by a digital camera, is covered by the claim’s wording.

The description, in paragraph 55, sets out that “[t]he image of the other terminal included in the real space image, for example, can be detected using a well-known image processing means for performing background difference and the like”. Similar wording is repeated in paragraph 82. These passages are the only explanation in the description relating to function (a).

The application does not contain any further explanation of the “background difference” image processing technique. In the field of image processing “background difference” is mostly used for detecting a moving object in a movie sequence. However, the “other terminal detection unit” as claimed does not have a movie sequence at its disposal, but only a real space image. Moreover, the detection of the image of an apparatus included in a real space image presupposes that the detecting unit possesses information about properties of the apparatus to be detected, e.g. size, form, colour, etc., or alternatively about properties of the background included in the real space image. In the board’s view, claim 1 does not specify or limit the properties of the other apparatus or of the background.

As to feature (b), the board notes that clearly the spatial coordinates of the other apparatus can only be specified once the other apparatus has been detected. In this regard, paragraph 55 contains the following explanation:

“the position of the other terminal in the spatial coordinate system, for example, can be specified using a position detection method disclosed in Japanese Unexamined Patent Application Publication No 2006-209334 and the like”.

According to the abstract, this Japanese patent application pertains to the detection of the position of a human person in a two-dimensional image. Paragraph 61 of the description of this publication suggests that another animal or another moving body can be detected too; however no corresponding details are provided. Hence, this published application does not provide an enabling disclosure for feature (a) or (b) over essentially the whole scope claimed.

Also the common general knowledge did not lead to another result:

The board is not aware of any common general knowledge which would enable the skilled person to put into practice the features referred to in section 1.1, in particular in view of the very broad wording “image of the other apparatus”.

At the oral proceedings, the appellant had argued that the line of sight to the other apparatus was known and only the distance from it had to be detected in order to specify the spatial coordinates of the other apparatus. But the board did not follow this argument either:

The board does not accept this argument. As set out above, detecting the image of a not further specified other apparatus in a two-dimensional image taken by one camera is not sufficiently disclosed. Clearly, the image of the other apparatus has to be detected first, before a line of sight can be established.

In the end, the board concluded that the application does not disclose the claimed invention in a sufficiently clear and complete manner, and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0677/17 (Augmented reality, detecting position of apparatus / Sony)

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