This case is interesting for UX designers. The basic question was whether a particular type of touch gesture to control the device is technical. The decision is one of the rarer cases where a “continued and/or guided human-machine interaction” was acknowledged. 

Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 2004/17 (Zooming on touch screen/APPLE) of 10.12.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

Providing continuous feedback to the user, in that there is an uninterrupted response to the user’s continued touch, and indicating an internal state of the device to the user, namely that it has reached the maximum zoom-in level for persistent display, is a technical effect.

The invention

This European patent application concerns touch gestures for scaling documents on a touchscreen.

According to the description, as portable electronic devices become more compact it has become challenging to design a user interface that allows users to easily interact with a multifunction device, especially devices with smaller screens.

For example, frequently only a portion of an electronic document can be displayed on the screen at a given time, and users have to scale (i.e. magnify or de-magnify) the displayed document. But according to the application, the limitations of conventional user interfaces can cause these actions to be awkward to perform.

The aim of the claimed invention was hence to provide for easy and intuitive scaling of electronic documents on a device with a touchscreen display.

Fig. 13B of EP 2 402 851
Fig. 13B of EP 2 402 851

Here is how the invention was defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The first-instance examining division had refused the patent application for lack of inventive step of the main request. The applicant pursued the same main request on the appeal.

On the appeal stage, the board considered the difference of claim 1 over the closest prior art to be that a respective portion of the electronic document is displayed at a predefined magnification if, upon detecting termination of the gesture, the magnification exceeds the predefined magnification.

The board interpreted this difference as follows:

In other words, the zoom-in level reached during the user’s gesture does not persist, upon termination of the user’s gesture, if this zoom-in level exceeds a threshold value; instead, the document is then displayed at a zoom-in level equal to this threshold value.

This was different from how this situation was handled in the prior art:

In contrast, D3 implements a hard stop, wherein if a maximum zoom-in level is reached during the gesture, the zooming-in action is stopped during the gesture and the document is persistently displayed at this maximum zoom-in level even if the user’s gesture is continued.

The question was then, of course, whether this difference was a technical one. The board took the position that it was:

The technical effect of this distinguishing feature is that feedback is provided continuously to the user, in that there is an uninterrupted response to the user’s continued touch, and that an internal state of the device, namely that it has reached the maximum zoom-in level for persistent display, is indicated to the user by providing the zoom bounce-back effect. In contrast, the device of D3 does not respond to the user’s gesture when the hard stop is reached, and the user does not know whether the fact that zooming has stopped is due to a malfunction of the device or not.

The objective technical problem can thus be formulated as how to indicate to the user that the maximum allowable persistent zoom-in level has been reached while providing continuous visual feedback to indicate that the device is responding to the user’s gesture.

Being a technical feature, the remaining question was then whether it would have been obvious for the skilled person to provide the claimed zoom bounce-back feature:

Nothing in D3 itself prompts the skilled person to provide an over-zooming feature and a zoom bounce-back feature as defined in claim 1.

Nor would the skilled person be prompted to look at D2, since this document does not disclose a touch-screen display wherein continuous zooming in a document is performed by a user’s continuous gesture. There is thus no disclosure in D2 of over-zooming and zoom bounce-back in response to a user’s gesture.

Moreover, the appellant argued persuasively that in D3 the absence of feedback when the hard stop is reached may confuse the user, who may then repeatedly attempt to perform the zoom-in gesture without receiving any response before understanding that the document cannot be viewed at a greater zoom level. In contrast, the zoom bounce-back in claim 1 definitely provides clear feedback that the maximum zoom level has been reached and that no additional input is required.

Therefore, the board held that claim 1 involved an inventive step.

The appealed decision was set aside and the case was remitted to the first instance with the order to grant a patent.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2004/17 (Zooming on touch screen/APPLE) of 10.12.2020

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