Computer gaming is certainly one of the more challenging areas in terms of patenting, and the concept of enabling certain gaming functions depending on the location of the user’s (smartphone) gaming device may sound rather non-technical at first glance. But the process of locating the gaming device, i.e. determining whether it is present within a certain geographic zone, is a technical task, and the patent application in this case concerned a more efficient technical implementation. Since the solution also turned out to be non-obvious, the appeal was successful.
Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0892/18 of 28.7.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.2.04:
Using reference sets of signal strength or times of travel, which are calibrated for and associated with certain areas or sub-zones, allows for determining presence of a gaming device in a sub-zone without an intermediate triangulation step, and thus solves a technical problem.
This European patent application relates to a wireless gaming system. A central server and multiple gaming communication devices (e.g. cell phones of users) communicate with each other via a wireless network. Within a certain property, such as a casino, activities (e.g. gambling) are enabled depending on the presence of a gaming device within a dedicated sub-zone of a zone of the property.
The presence is determined by comparing actual signal strength or time of travel of a gaming device with reference sets of signal strength or time of travel associated with sub-zones, which have been established beforehand.
Here is how the invention was defined in claim 1:
Is it patentable?
The examining division had refused the patent application by deciding that claim 1 contained added subject-matter and did not involve an inventive step. On the appeal stage, the appellant filed amended claims which eventually overcame the added subject-matter objection.
Regarding novelty and inventive step, the board started its analysis from a prior art document from which claim 1 differed in that
- the property comprises a plurality of zones, each zone being associated with at least one allowed activity, wherein each zone comprises one or more sub-zones and each sub-zone being associated with a reference set of signal strengths or a reference set of times of travel of signals received by the plurality of signal detection devices from a gaming communication device in the sub-zone;
- the software is configured to: determine the sub-zone in which the gaming communication device (13, 24, 604) is located based upon a comparison of a set of signal strengths or a set of times of travel of signals received by the plurality of signal detection devices from the gaming communication device with the reference set of signal strengths or the reference set of times of travel for each sub-zone.
In the words of the board:
Whereas claim 1 relates thus to detecting the presence of gaming devices within sub-zones of zones of a property by means of pre-determined reference sets of signal characteristics, D1 relies on triangulation for determining the absolute positions of gaming devices within a property (albeit to varying degrees of accuracy) and concludes on their presence in areas surrounding gaming machines from these absolute positions (page 11, second and third paragraph).
The subject-matter of claim 1 is thus new in the sense of Article 54(1), (2) EPC.
The central question was then, of course, whether this difference is a technical one, so that it can establish an inventive step. The board answered this in the affirmative:
In the light of the above identified difference, the problem to be solved can be considered as providing an alternative and efficient way of controlling location based functionality of the gaming communication devices of D1.
The problem is solved by the system of claim 1, since the concept of using reference sets of signal strength or times of travel, which are calibrated for and associated with certain areas or sub-zones, allows for determining presence of a gaming device in a sub-zone without an intermediate triangulation step.
Accordingly, the features in question were considered to contribute to the technical character of the invention without any discussion. What is more, claim 1 was eventually also considered to involve an inventive step:
The claimed solution is not suggested by any of the prior art cited by the Examining Division.
In particular, D2 proposes to use empirically-determined and theoretically-computed signal strength information (page 775, bridging paragraphs of the columns), which is representative for distinct physical locations on the floor of a building (page 777, last paragraph of section “3.2. Data Collection”). These reference sets of signal strength are, however, respectively associated with the distinct locations, not with areas or sub-zones, and are used in a further step of triangulation. Therefore, the straight-forward application of the method of D2 in the system of D1, which is also based on triangulation, would not result in the subject-matter of claim 1.
Since the subject-matter of claim 1 can thus not be obtained in an obvious manner from the cited prior art, it involves an inventive step in the sense of Article 56 EPC.
In the end, the board set aside the decision under appeal and remitted the case to the examining division with order to grant a patent.
You can read the whole decision here: T 0892/18 of 28.7.2020