The European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on a method of unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlock image. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2630/17 (Feedback on gesture input/APPLE) of 28.5.2019:

Key takeaways

Giving visual indications about conditions prevailing in an apparatus or system can only be considered a technical problem if these are technical conditions.

Not every internal state variable in a running computer can be considered a “technical condition” prevailing in the computer. The display of an internal state variable of a running computer program cannot, by itself, establish that a technical problem is solved.

Providing reassuring feedback – i.e. a confirmation that the user has been doing the right thing so far – is not in itself a technical effect.

The invention

This European patent application relates to a gesture-based procedure for unlocking the touch screen of a portable computing device such as a mobile phone – or, more generally for “transitioning […] between” first and second “user interface states” – and to providing visual feedback for supporting the user in the process.

A typical interface according to the invention is depicted below. To unlock the device, the user “drags” an “unlock image” (402) along a predefined path (404). This mechanism has become known as “slide-to-unlock”.

Fig. 4A of EP3435213A1
Fig. 4A of EP3435213A1

It is proposed to give “sensory feedback of the progress” of the required gesture by “transitio­ning an optical intensity of one or more user interface objects associated with the second user interface”. The “optical intensity of a user-inter­face object” is said to be “the object’s degree of visu­al materialization” in a broad sense, subsuming transparency or brightness effects or other means of “visual diffe­ren­tiation”.

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the main request:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable ?

For assessing the inventive step, the Board found features in the main request that are not disclosed or suggested by the prior art:

6.8 The board … concludes that neither D8 nor D6 discloses or suggests that a user interface element appears at the start of the gesture input and increases in optical intensity to provide “feedback” about its progress.

It remains to be assessed whether the difference features solve a technical problem or, instead, merely “refer[] to an aim to be achieved in a non-technical field” (see, in particular, T 641/00, headnote 2). In the latter case, the difference features would not support an inventive step (see T 641/00, headnote 1), even if they happened to be non-obvious over the prior art.

The Board assessed the above difference features do not have a technical effect:

10. In the present case, the board considers gesture input on a touch screen to be a technical process, in that it implies the tracking of the user’s finger position to identify a gesture and the comparison of that gesture with a required, reference gesture.

10.1 The board also accepts that the claimed graphical user interface provides a form of “feedback” about a “continued […] human-machine interaction process” but considers that this feedback does not guide the user or, more importantly, assist the user in inputting the gesture correctly. The feedback does not, for instance, indicate an error between the gesture being input and the reference gesture.

10.2 According to the claimed invention, users are merely continuously informed as to whether they have input the required gesture correctly so far. That is, as long as they observe a change in optical intensity while gesturing they will understand that the partial gesture input so far has been correct.

10.3 This may reassure (inexperienced) users about what they are doing but does not help them decide what to do next. The board considers that providing reassuring feedback – i.e. a confirmation that the user has been doing the right thing so far – is not in itself a technical effect. For illustration, the board notes that a user who knows the required gesture, in particular if it is a short, simple swipe as required by D8, may decide to ignore the graphical feedback altogether without any loss in input precision or speed. In other words, the user need not heed the feedback in order to successfully enter the required gesture.

Therefore, the board held that the characterising GUI features do not solve a technical problem. In the end, the appeal was dismissed and the European patent application was rejected for lacking an inventive step over the prior art.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2630/17 (Feedback on gesture input/APPLE) of 28.5.2019.

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