Virtual reality is probably best known amongst the gaming community, but its roots can be traced back to the military which was an early adopter for training purposes such as flight simulation or simulated combat situations.
Beyond gaming and military applications, other uses abound. Virtual reality is being used to design cars and buildings, for practicing how to weld or perform surgery, and for training professional sports athletes. Even an insurance company is training their claims adjusters in virtual reality environments to expose them quickly to a variety of situations.
Companies are investing in this technology and are increasingly seeking protection for their intellectual property. Closer inspection of the patent landscape reveals that many of these are today’s technology giants who are investing heavily in this space.
We reviewed the virtual reality patent landscape with a view to understanding the varied applications and uses virtual reality technology already touches. We used the Derwent World Patents Index (DWPI) and full text patent collections within Derwent Innovation to conduct a search for augmented or virtual reality patents resulting in over 47,000 total records which, when de-duplicated, form over 24,000 DWPI patent families. Analyses of trends over time and major players were conducted on the total number of records, while ThemeScape mapping and text mining analysis were completed at the DWPI family level.
Figure 1. Virtual reality patent publication year filing. Source: Derwent Innovation
The Patent Publication Year filing trend in Figure 1 shows that virtual reality technology is valued by industry. Between 1998 (537 records and 396 DWPI families) and 2008 (991 records and 724 DWPI families), the total number of records per year remained under 1,000. However, beginning in the early part of this decade we see exponential level growth in the number of patent records. In 2017 alone, there were 11,307 records (8,911 DWPI families) which represents over a four-fold increase from 2012, just five years prior (2,650 records, 1772 DWPI families).
Figure 2. Virtual reality top assignees. Source: Derwent Innovation
Next, a review of the Top Assignees (Figure 2) not surprisingly reveals tech giants like Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Qualcomm, and LG to round out the top five, but also Google, IBM, Intel and Nokia. Oculus, acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion, appears in the Top 20 as well.
Figure 3. ThemeScape patent language analysis. Source: Derwent Innovation
The analysis in Figure 3 uses an application called ThemeScape which is a visual text mining application that helps uncover similarities and differences in a large data set. For this analysis we used the collapsed DWPI family dataset (~24,000 records) to analyze the DWPI Abstract – Use field. This allows us to focus on how the invention will be used in order to explore the numerous virtual reality applications found in patents.
Most of the thematic labels displayed in the green circles have to do with either the physical devices involved or the software itself. For example, display screens, helmets, head-mounted devices, glass, and chairs are necessary hardware; thematic labels referring to reality scenes, reality images, reality experience, and information processing systems necessarily have to do with the virtual reality software itself.
Reviewing other areas of the map shows further areas of application – surgical applications, patient rehabilitation, unmanned aerial devices, virtual reality shopping malls and virtual training and simulation to name a few.
In order to take a more detailed look at applications relating to training and simulation, those records were extracted from the ThemeScape map and categorized via a Text Clustering analysis. Figure 4 shows the output of such an analysis. In a Text Clustering analysis the patent records are aggregated into a single, top level folder. Reviewing the extracted terms, labels such as golf, driver, weld, rehabilitation, and pilot all appear, suggesting various virtual reality training uses. Expanding various folders elucidates additional terms (not shown) like firefighting, dance training, drilling simulation, medical training, psychotherapy, education system, and rescue simulation to name just a few. Clearly, an in-depth look at any particular region of a ThemeScape map with Text Clustering reveals additional uses that can be difficult to mine from a ThemeScape map.
It is clear from the companies involved and the patent filing trends that virtual reality is here to stay. Text mining analysis reveals major technology concentrations for virtual reality applications, and more in depth analysis reveals, perhaps, some surprising uses.
Further analysis and a copy of the full report, “Transformational technology: A look at the virtual reality patent landscape” are available here.