In through the outfield blog

Neil Infield on business and intellectual property

19 December 2012

Automated storage and retrieval of retail stock: inventions

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Retailers depend on increasingly complex machinery and software to store and retrieve stock when they receive orders, something which is happening on a huge scale, of course, this close to Christmas.

I was reminded of this when reading the very interesting BBC story Logistics: rise of the warehouse robots

An example of what the systems can look like is given in the drawing shown below, which is from the (German language) Storage and picking system.  

Warehouse robot picking patent image

The systems are expensive, but they do mean that the right items can be correctly and quickly identified and retrieved. Storing them in an optimal way so that the most highly requested items are quicker to retrieve is often part of the system as well. Using staff would take much longer and would occasionally involve errors. It is easy to take all this for granted.

Autostore was mentioned in the BBC story. This Norwegian company has a system where instead of retrieval being based in aisles between high stacking, robotic units move around above a huge cube containing the retrieval system. They have an American patent on the topic, Method for organizing the storage of different units, which dates back to 1997.

A list of those World patent applications in B65G1/137D, the ECLA for such equipment designed to fulfil orders in warehouses, is given here.

Amazon went to the trouble of buying a company involved in the field, Kiva Systems, for $775 million. This is a list of World patent applications by Kiva Systems.

It’s not just retailers who find such systems useful. Pharmacies can use them as well, while the British Library is building a storage area for its paper copies of newspapers at Boston Spa, Yorkshire, which looks just as space age as any automated retail warehouse. The same principles apply. Automated shelving still needs to be installed before the newspapers are put there.

14 December 2012

How the bar code was invented and developed

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It has been announced that Norman Woodand, co-inventor of the bar code, has died. There is a BBC obituary with interesting facts about him and the invention. Bernard Silver, the other inventor, died in 1963. This post adds further information to the BBC story.

In 1948 Silver, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, overheard a conversation between a faculty member and a food store chain executive. The executive wanted the Institute to develop a system which would quickly and accurately capture product data at the check-out counter.

His friend Woodland first suggested ultraviolet light sensitive ink, but that did not work. Then he suggested adapting Morse Code – dots and dashes – by drawing them down to form thin and thick lines to represent binary information (zeroes and ones). The sand story, as told in the obituary (and new to me), came about when he was staying at his grandfather’s apartment in Florida.

Similarly the DeForest movie sound system, that used a sensitive tube to detect the projector light shining through the side of the film, was adapted. Light was converted into numbers rather than into sound. The patent advocates a shape like an archery target rather than our modern linear design, so that it could be scanned from any direction (both covered both formats). Its title was Classifying apparatus and method and it was filed for in 1949. Below is the main drawing.

Original bar code patent drawing

The concept was not feasible until computer power and cheap reliable machines based on lasers became available in the late 1960s. The now standard bar appearance is used, as the target design meant that the ink tended to “bleed”, making accurate reading difficult. The common usage of uniform barcodes had to be agreed by manufacturers in what is now the Universal Product Code, or UPC, and must have been a huge effort, as lots of items had to have codes printed on them before any scanning actually happened.

A bar of Wrigley’s® chewing gum was the first to be scanned, in an Ohio store in 1974.

12 November 2012

Furby, the interactive toy®

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Furby® was a short-lived fad back in 1998 as the first popular computerised pet, and has now been relaunched in time for Christmas.

The patent for it, Interactive toy, is one of the most interesting patent specifications ever written, with lots of detail on how Furby® “thinks”. Here are its main drawings.

Furby patent drawings

Co-inventor David Hampton has said he knows what he would have done if his parents had given him one on his ninth birthday. "One, I'd take the fur off. Two, I'd open up the case, the shell. Three, look at everything as it's working— that way I can see how everything is tied together. Four, I would start disassembling the circuit board. And, if I really succeeded," he continued, "I would put it all back together and it would still work." Even when he was young, the family basement was littered with a dozen broken radios which he would fix for a few dollars, sometimes in the middle of the night.

The relaunch may have meant modifications, but the original Furby® was a 13 cm high mechanized ball of synthetic hair that looked like a penguin metamorphing into part owl, part kitten.

It had a 200-word vocabulary in a language called Furbish and could squeal if the lights went out, snore and sneeze. Hampton was an inventor of toys and medical products who lived with his family in a remote California forest. During the craze he lived in anonymity to avoid frantic parents demanding the toys, which flew off store shelves and fetched ten times their suggested $30 Internet retail price. One source suggests 40 million units were sold.

As soon as he left high school Hampton had joined the navy, specialising in aviation electronics. This led to jobs in Silicon Valley, including one designing the video game Q-Bert and another in product development for Mattel. He went on to form his own design and consulting company, Sounds Amazing, when in 1997 he visited New York for the annual Toy Fair trade show. The big hit there was the (unpatented) interactive, digital pets known as Tamagotchi. Existing on tiny electronic screens, the toys required their owners to feed them and clean up after them by pushing buttons, or death soon resulted.

Hampton saw a fatal flaw. "You can't pet it." Returning to the workshop at home, he began listing what he wanted from his ideal virtual pet (working name, Furball). "I started a script like, if you rub his back, he'll purr,” Hampton said. He also gave Furby® a language, an amalgam of the languages he had picked up while travelling in the navy. Using a crude circuit board, he brought its scratchy voice to life. A former colleague from Mattel, Caleb Chung, created the mechanics.

Within ten months of the fair, Hampton had sold the idea to Tiger Electronics. A crude model was shown at the next toy fair, linked to a generator. Soon it was on its way as the latest hot toy. One unhappy owner, admittedly, put his “Furby Autopsy” up on the Web, complete with a toe-tagged "crime scene photo". "Frankly," the owner and self-described scientist wrote, "we find him much more amusing dead than he was alive."

Hampton has seen the site. "My first thought was, 'That's what I would have done," he said. "The other side of me said: My baby! They're dissecting my babies!' "

A lot of thinking went into the toy. They wanted to keep the retail price down to $30, so some shortcuts were used. Instead of costly communications circuits -- the kind that permit wireless messaging among various computer devices -- Furbies exchange crude infrared signals between themselves to produce giggles and “goofing” sessions. The silicon brain is a low-cost Asian variant of the chip that powered the original Apple II. Using cams to get the eyes and ears to move was both cheap and a compact way to do it.

Furby® has trouble doing two things at once, and that's good, since carefully crafted software rules give the illusion of complexity. Talking always takes priority over listening. So Furby® sometimes seems a little unresponsive -- like many children. While he is in motion, the sound sensor automatically switches off, which saves battery power and prevents its motor noise from confusing the sensor. The vocabulary is small, but words get combined in ways that even the inventor never predicted.

If you continually say one of hundreds of programmed words like "love" and "friend" they will be learned and repeated back to you. The eyes show emotions, and a flexible beak smiles or frowns depending on how often you pet it.

To avoid imitations, designs were applied for showing normal the look of Furby®, and if he was stripped of fur. These are, respectively, US D423611 and D419209. Below is an image from D423611.


What surprised me was that Hasbro had apparently let the US trade mark (but not the European marks) lapse, and a number of applications were made on the 20 July 2012 for the word. 

14 July 2012

Google's driverless cars

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Google has been road testing a driverless car, and so I had a look for its relevant patent specifications. They are controlled by computers processing a combination of mapping data, radar, laser sensors and video feeds. The vehicles used are Toyota Prius hybrids, and 200,000 miles have been covered without an accident in Nevada. Sebastian Thrun, who was behind the Google Streetview project, has been behind it, if only because it uses some of the technology.

These are the ones that I’ve traced.

Transitioning a mixed-mode vehicle to autonomous mode.

Traffic signal mapping and detection, drawing shown below.

Traffic signal patent drawing by Google

Zone driving.

Diagnosis and repair for autonomous vehicles.

System and method for predicting behaviors of detected objects.

Here's a video on the project.


The 1939-40 New York's World Fair had the Futurama exhibit at the General Motors pavilion with a ride through the "world of tomorrow", with the landscape including autonomous vehicles moving steadily in formation on wide roads. It was supposed to happen in 20 years' time. Many experts say that driverless cars have a much better chance this time.

09 July 2012

Patented electronic cigarettes

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Recently a busload of passengers were detained by police on a motorway when someone used an electronic cigarette, as reported by the BBC.

This certainly gave publicity to the concept of trying to quit by using a device that delivers the impression and sensation of smoking, usually with nicotine. According to the Wikipedia article on electronic cigarettes "The device's components usually include a small liquid reservoir, a heating element, and a power source, which may be a battery or a wired USB adapter."

The article cites the first patent as by Herbert Gilbert. This is the Smokeless non-tobacco cigarette, applied for in 1963. A list of patent specifications in the relevant class published through the PCT "World" system is here.

I have before me an example of one that was recently handed to me outside a railway station. A pen-like device, encased in a clear plastic case, the wrapping states that it contains nicotine to the equivalent of 60 cigarettes. The name is Freedom e-cigs, and boasts of being the "UK's top e-cig." According to the website, a good point in its favour is "good throat kick", which sounds very odd to this confirmed non-smoker.

As so often, the company missed a trick by not asserting the use of the trade mark as registered by using the familar ® icon. UK trade mark 2578582 was registered in July 2011. While not required, it  shows that the company is determined to protect its intellectual property. Here is the full trade mark.

Freedom electronic cigarette trade mark

03 July 2012

Alan Blumlein and the invention of stereo

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Alan Blumlein was the pioneer of stereo sound, and the British Library has put recordings of his voice and of early experiments up on its sound recording website. At the 70th anniversary of his death it is a tribute to a genius whom few have heard of.

In 1931 Blumlein's GB 394325 was applied for by Electric and Musical Industries Limited, later better known as EMI. It enabled the first single track, two channel gramophone recordings. Here is the main set of drawings.

Blumlein stereo sound patent drawing

It is a classic patent in the history of electrical engineering, and has the then extraordinary number of 70 claims (half a dozen was normal at the time). The story goes that he thought of the basic idea when he and his wife were at the cinema. The early "talkies" had a single set of speakers which meant that the actor might be on one side of the screen while his voice seemed to come from the other side.  Blumlein declared to his wife that he had found a way to make the sound follow the actor across the screen.

Blumlein is credited with 128 patents in a working life of 18 years (he was only 38 when he died, while engaged in radar experiments in a Halifax bomber). A true polymath, he worked in virtually every field of electrical engineering. The Espacenet database lists 119 patents by Alan Blumlein.

14 June 2012

Ying EDS and their enhanced depth solution technology

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Yesterday's Evening Standard had an article called A TV revolution made in London ? about Ying EDS, a company that offers an "enhanced depth solution" (EDS) to TV and film to increase the viewer's enjoyment.

The immersive feeling is only slightly inferior to 3D systems requiring the use of special glasses, and is a post-production technique rather than requiring special cameras and other equipment when filming. It costs £21,000 per hour for television footage, while 3D for television is more like £70,000 per hour.

The article includes clips of footage to see what it's like. EDS uses conventional 2D video frames and alters them, and -- says the article -- "works on the brain - persuading viewers that they are seeing a deeper picture than they are - rather than creating an optical illusion, circumventing another complaint made about conventional 3D: that it can give viewers a headache."

The article also says "the patented technology they have been developing in London for over a decade could now change the face of TV worldwide."

A patent ? Gosh, that would mean lots of technical details. I had a look, and could not find a published patent application by Ying EDS, which means that unless they used another name that the technology is not in fact published, yet alone patented.

What I did find -- and which can be found by doing a Google search for Ying EDS plus the word "patent", where for me at least the relevant entry was sixth in the hit list -- is the fact that on the 9 May 2012 Ying EDS filed for a British patent for "Improvements in motion pictures", with the reference GB1205141.3.

I wonder how many people finding that entry would understand that this means that the patent application will be published 18 months from that date, with a granted patent to follow if it is thought to be new. Protection in other countries is potentially available by filing abroad within 12 months of the 9 May, who also publish at 18 months from the 9 May.

It is rare for journalists to cite the actual patent when discussing a patented technology. Film and book critics, I notice, do mention the names of the films and books that they review to assist the reader who wants to know more. In this case, of course, an incorrect statement was made.

23 May 2012

The invention of the television remote control

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The BBC has an obituary of Eugene Polley, who has died at the age of 96, who it calls the inventor of the TV remote control.

His Flash-Matic invention is I believe the Control system patent, filed in 1955. Its main image is given below.

Polley TV remote control patent image

I must admit that I had thought the key patent was Robert Adler's patent, also called Control system, and also for Zenith Radio. It was filed in 1957. The main drawing is below.

Adler TV remote control patenr image

Unlike the Polley invention, which involved photocells, the Adler invention sent ultrasonic signals to turn the TV on or off, change channels, or turn the volume up or down.

In 1985 was filed the Universal remote control unit by NAP Consumer Electronics, which was apparently a big advance in the concept. It used infrared LEDs.

What was definitely not a useful idea was the Extensible television controls, filed in 1955 by the great industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who on this occasion had one of his less practicable ideas.