Patents versus Accessibility

Just one example of the many gesture patents rolling around in the USPTO database, this one for denoting something important by making a heart shape over it.

I haven’t ranted about patents for a while, which doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any activity. In fact, there has been activity in precisely the space where I think patents can disproportionately hurt users — in accessibility technologies.

A couple weeks back Don Norman put together an overview of gestures as user interface behaviors in Gestural Control: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His opening salvo sums up the concern with patent encumbrance:

I await the day when gestures become standardized. When systems combine the best of all worlds: gestures, voice, and menus, keyboards, and pointing devices. But before we can do this, we have a simple task to do: reform the patent system.

He rightly notes that while gestures can be powerful, they are not universal. Cultural differences alone can make gestures difficult to translate across users. Implementation of gestures is also inconsistent, even across devices from one manufacturer (looking at you, Apple, Microsoft, and everyone else). He does identify a scenario where gestures can be consistent:

Yes, some groups of people such as athletes and referees, military squads and others learn standard gestures to let them work efficiently where other means of communication are not possible, either because of the need to be silent or because of a high noise level.

I argue that this statement also applies to users with disabilities. For example, sign language is a common set of gestures that allows its users to communicate regardless of the ability to hear (whether by audio impairment or, as in the case of some of my friends, stealthily complaining about the server).

Patents on gestures is nothing new. The opening example of a heart-shaped gesture to allow Google Glass users to “like” things they see in real life dates back to 2011. That is from a very quick search in the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) database for “gesture.” If had a budget to search, I suspect I could find older.

The problem here is that gestures are already obtuse and complex enough in many cases, but patent-encumbered gestures will result in even more unintuitive and bizarre contortions to perform the same function across devices. This will also make it that much harder for users to switch platforms, let alone learn a first platform.

Think about this in the scope of accessibility. As I mused on Twitter, wouldn’t it be nice if a user could enable and use accessibility features on any device with the same gesture (or set of gestures)? Just as I can pick up any device and read words on the screen in a generally consistent way, or just as I can expect a ramp to work that same way no matter the building to which it’s attached, I think consistency removes a barrier to entry that is otherwise being built up more and more.

Example of a GUI with accessibility features in an Apple patent.

If you think accessibility features will be somehow immune to the patent process, consider Apple’s patent for a graphical user interface for the visually impaired (there’s a PDF of the entire application as well).

That Apple patent likely means if Samsung wants to use an interface that has even a passing resemblance to the one Apple has patented, you can expect Apple to sue. The same goes for a gesture. The same will go for gestures that are tied to accessibility features.

We’ve already got a patent system that’s out of control, with even the most basic ideas receiving patents. It seems the same patent process is also building barriers to accessibility using the very ideals that should be using to tear barriers down. Ideally with enough people raising a stink we can slow or even stop the process.

Previous Patent Rants

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