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New Year’s resolutions, IP and Fitness

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Leaving the overindulgence of the Christmas period and entering into the New Year of 2018, we will inevitably see an abrupt shift from yuletide-themed adverts to January clearance sales, and with it the traditional bombardment of reminders to buy sofas at half of the (alleged) recommended retail price, prompts to start putting down instalments on that dream summer holiday and, of course, the fitness and/or health-themed myriad of adverts that boisterously tell us to “start afresh” this New Year. This year has been a comparatively busy year in the growing patent portfolio of fitness-related gadgets and mobile applications (“apps”), particularly with regard to smart-watches and fitness trackers.  As we all know, the Christmas period is a time of expanding waistlines, but have you ever contemplated an expanding wrist- line? Never one to be out done, Apple Inc. have recently been granted a new patent for various types of self-adjusting Apple Watch bands, which automatically tighten or loosen to perfectly fit your wrist. The US patent application (US Patent No. 9,781,984, “Dynamic fit adjustment for wearable electronic devices) was published in October 2017 and describes “smart” wrist-bands that are far more advanced than the typical rubber or leather straps currently being used. Instead, Apple Inc. appear to be interested in a system where users could electronically adjust the tightness or looseness of their watch-bands, either manually or in automatic response to biometric data fed-back from the Apple Watch. There are a few proposed ways that the patent suggests that such a band could physically be implemented, including shape memory wire (such as Nitinol) that expands or contracts upon receipt of electrical signals, or size adjustment using a fluid- or gas-filled bladder or using strap lugs that are able to retract into the body of the Watch, or a tightening adjustment using an extendable case that could move the Watch closer to the wearer’s arm.

Interestingly, a US patent application belonging to Apple Inc. was published earlier this year for Apple’s wireless earbuds (known as “AirPods”) with one or more biometric sensors configured to be pressed up against a portion of the ‘tragus’ of the wearer (the small bit of cartilage that is part of the external ear and is situated in front of the concha) in order to record biometric measurements. Wireless earbuds have grown in popularity of late; this is likely because they effectively reduce the number of gadgets necessary for engaging in “smart” exercise routines.  This patent application suggests that Apple Inc. are potentially interested in a share of the “in-ear” fitness tracking hardware market; where once you needed a dedicated wrist-worn heart rate monitor (e.g. a FitBit) connected to a smartphone in your pocket, gym-goers can simply carry a pair of wire-free earbuds which can potentially monitor blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, perspiration levels, and brain waves, according to the publication.

In more recent years, (and stereotypically more relevant to the millennial generation) the Christmas and/or New Year period has become a time where you might send friends and family a themed filtered-photo or video via the instant messaging and multimedia mobile app Snapchat (colloquially referred to as sending a “Snap”). Snapchat’s owners, Snap Inc., however also appear to be interested in moving into the fitness-tracking industry this year. A new US patent has been recently granted to Snap Inc. in November suggesting that the company may also wish to include step tracking into its app. The patent outlines a potential new feature for Snapchat, where users agree to let the app use their phone’s sensor data in a similar way to how Snapchat users can currently let their friends know how fast they are traveling or how high up they are using graphical-overlay filters that reference the phone’s GPS, the new function would let users add how many steps they have currently walked to their snaps, according to the patent filing. As an added motivational incentive, the app would also let users compare with participating friends how many steps they have taken and be ranked in order by the social network, where if they are among the top three of their friends, they would be able to include “a unique graphic, such as a trophy with a blue ribbon” according to the filing. The patent also suggests that users would also be able to set a “daily step count threshold (e.g.  5000 steps per day or 10000 steps per day)”, much like smartwatch wearers or those that use the built-in step-tracking capabilities on modern smartphones can. Dedicated fitness applications, such as Stava, of course already utilise ranked leader boards, albeit with regard to time-related cycle and running routes using GPS-acquired data; it appears that this is the first time it has been contemplated by instant messaging app.  With the mainstream popularity and use of Snapchat and 178 million daily active users worldwide, it will be interesting to see what these potential additions to this popular messaging app yields, and its potential effect on our attitude to keeping on top of our New Year’s resolution fitness goals in the coming years.

On a different note, towards the end of 2017 we also saw Blackbird Technologies settle a patent infringement case with fitness-technology giant Garmin. The infringed patent, U.S. Patent  No. 6,434,212 filed way back in early 2001, related to a pedometer with an enhanced accuracy in distance measurements. According to the patent, the pedometer improved accuracy by calculating the actual stride lengths of a user based on relative stride rates,  and included a waist or leg mounted stride counter, a transmitter for transmitting data to a wrist-mounted display unit, and a data processor for calculating necessary base units and actual stride rates and lengths. The pedometer could also interact with a heart monitoring device. In August 2016, Blackbird Technologies filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Garmin International, Inc. and Garmin USA, Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. Last month, the parties finally settled the case, and it is promising to see that IP rights in the US (filed 16 years before modern-day fitness trackers were even conceptualised into the ubiquitous devices they are today) are being successfully upheld for patented technology that may have contributed to the successful growth of that industry.

Whether you like to set and track your fitness goals this near year , there is no doubt that there is a growing trend for people to increasingly rely on gadgets to set themselves personal goals, measure success,  and stay motivated. As such patented software and hardware in this area appear to be ever increasing. It seems that our smartphones, once so often vilified for causing us to be socially alienating, and a source of distraction form the “great outdoors”, may now have a great power for good in allowing us to set, track, and help us achieve our goals for the New Year and beyond; 2018 may even be the first year that some of us achieve our New Year’s resolutions.

John Ioannou 3 January 2018

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