Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The latest in stereo cosmetics

I was pseudo-randomly looking  through patents today, and came across one that was just plain interesting. US patent #8,421,769 is entitled "Electronic Cosmetic Case with 3D Function". Normally, when I come upon a patent, my first thought is "Gosh! Someone beat me to the patent office again!" In this particular case though, my immediate reaction was "Gosh! Why didn't I think of that!?!?" 

3D Cosmetic Case, the Movie

Here is a quote from the abstract: "An electronic cosmetic case includes a stereo image display unit, and a pair of image capturing units." Ok, so it has two cameras mounted in a compact?  Why?  We read on... "The pair of image capturing units is for simultaneously capturing facial image of a user from two different directions, and providing the captured images to the stereo image display unit."

Oh, cool. Two cameras, 3D display? What's not to love about this wiz-bang technology? I want one!!!

And we read further into the abstract: "The stereo image display unit receives the two captured images and simultaneously displays one captured image to the left eye and displays the other captured image to the right eye, thus allowing the user to perceive a stereo image."

This is the basics as described in the title and the abstract. These parts of the patent serve to frame the invention. They are there to serve as a guide for someone who is quickly scanning through patents. But they are not, as we shall see, necessarily going to describe exactly what the inventor has staked a claim for.


The patent we are looking at has three drawings. Below we see the first, which shows what this cosmetic case might look like. As can be seen, the drawing is not terribly sophisticated. In fact, for a small fee, I might be persuaded to draw something like this. I'm thinking that pretty much any geek could make a drawing like this. 
Figure 1 from US Patent #8,421,769

That may sound like a put-down, but the drawings don't need to be drawn by a skilled draftsperson at $175 an hour. This drawing is adequate in that it enables someone "skilled in the art" (for example, an engineer you would hire to design this) enough to go on to build one of these. Presumably, that engineer could figger out all the details like dimensions, and color, and what parts are needed to make an "image processing unit".

There is a requirement in a patent that the inventor "disclose the preferred embodiment". This means that they may need to include mechanical drawings and schematics and flowcharts for software - if the invention is near the product stage. As a result, the sophistication of the drawings generally follows along with the maturity of the invention. From this drawing, it would appear that the inventor did not have a design that was ready for production when the patent was filed for (December 21 of 2010).


Why would a woman want a compact like this? So a woman can see a 3D image of her face while applying makeup, silly! Depth perception, hand-eye coordination, the need for precise location... it all makes sense.

But, we need to look for the explanation in the patent. Lemme 'splain. To get a patent, the invention has to be useful. Because of this, patents generally come along with a statement at the beginning which justifies the invention. The section of the patent called "Background" or "Prior art" generally says things like "this is how it used to get done, but it would be advantageous to do it more better".

Here is the quote from the Background of the 3D cosmetic case patent: "Cosmetic cases usually include a base and a plane mirror... However, the plane mirror has many blind spots, which are not easy for the user to see, making it difficult to determine how the makeup has been done."

Blind spots? Really? I dunno. Maybe it's just me, but I think I can see pretty much all my face when I look in a mirror. I haven't had a lot of problem putting on makeup, anyway. Of course, maybe I am mistaken, since my beard covers a lot of that face. I'm not fully convinced that what has been described solves a real problem, but inventions are not granted based on whether the patent examiner thinks the invention will be a successful product. The bar is a bit lower than that.

Do you gotta wear the glasses?

When I read the abstract, my first thought was about 3D glasses. Back when I was a kid, you needed special glasses to watch a 3D movies. The original glasses had one red lens and one green. Very fashionable, and I am sure they would make a strong fashion statement when used along with a 3D cosmetic case! Today of course, theaters use polarized lenses, but - the important question here - does the user have to wear special glasses in order to use the 3D compact?

To answer this, I had a look at the specification part of the patent. This is a big bunch of words, bolstered by the drawings. What did they say about the display? Here is the very detailed description that they give: "In one embodiment, the stereo image display unit 101 may be a parallax barrier display, or a lenticular lens display."

A parallax barrier display has a series of stripes built in that allow one line of pixels to head off to the right eye and another line to go off to the right eye. How Stuff Works gives a pretty good description. The lenticular arrays do essentially the same thing with a clear plastic covering that has horizontal ridges.

That's the technical stuff, and it's interesting. Before I looked at this patent, I didn't know nothing from parallax barrier displays. Not only are they fun and inspirational reading, but patents can be a good place to get learned stuff about technology.

The inventor has graciously provided enough information so that someone could build the 3D compact. This is a requirement for a patent - enablement. This part of the invention has thus been enabled. 3D displays are "well-known in the art". Just go buy one.

Or is this enough enablement? One could argue that, to be practical, a 3D compact must be small enough to fit in a lady's purse. When I did a little rudimentary poking around online, I saw 3D displays that were nowhere near small enough. One could argue that a commercially viable version of the 3D compact has not been enabled in this patent.

But, it doesn't have to be. This sort of thing is always a judgment call, but unless I hear a good argument otherwise I am guessing that the enablement is satisfactory. Based on this disclosure, I could go to Best Buy and purchase a home theater 3D display that I could use to build this invention. It might not fit in my wife's purse, but that's not a requirement for the patent. Then again, my wife has some pretty large purses...

A patent? Really?

One may ask, how could someone get a patent for this? To get a patent, an invention must be novel, and 3D displays have been around for a while. And what about using two cameras to feed a stereo display? I have not searched through the prior art (that is, the earlier patents), but this sounds like something that someone has probably done before.

It could be that this general idea (two cameras and a stereo display) is not new, but that applying this technology to a new problem may be novel enough to have a patent granted. That's often the case. Patents are often granted for new applications of existing technology.

But we are forgetting one little thing: the claims are really the most important part. In a previous blog post on patents, I looked at one patent that everyone was up in arms about. If only people would have read the claims in the patent, they would have realized that there was nothing worth getting upset about. The claims are the part that define what the inventor (or the assignee) owns.

Here is the one and only claim from this patent. (I have added the bold faced type.)

1. An electronic cosmetic case comprising: 

a pair of image capturing units for simultaneously capturing facial images of a user from two different directions thereby obtaining two captured images; 

a stereo image display unit to receive the two captured images and simultaneously display one captured image to the left eye and the other captured image to the right eye, thus allowing the user to perceive a stereo image; 

a touch display panel for displaying a plurality of virtual cosmetics for the user to select; 

an optical pointing sensor for touching the touch display panel to select one virtual cosmetic from the plurality of virtual cosmetics, and touching a face of the user to make movements on the face according to the user operation, thereby simulating the application of makeup on the face of the user; 

a processing unit for determining a selected virtual cosmetic when the optical pointing sensor touches the plurality of virtual cosmetics, determining a movement track of the optical pointing sensor on the face and a thickness of the selected virtual cosmetic when the optical pointing sensor does the simulative makeup on the face of the user, doing the simulative makeup along the determined movement track on the stereo image, and creating a simulated stereo makeup image by filling the selected virtual cosmetic on the stereo image according to the determined thickness of the virtual cosmetic; and a repeat key for repeating a step of doing a simulation of makeup on the stereo image according to the user operation. 

What? Where di all this extra stuff come from??!!?!!  The title, abstract, and background didn't say nuthin' about no touch display panel, optical display panel, and processing unit. More importantly, I didn't see anything in these sections about virtual cosmetics or simulating the application of said virtual cosmetics on someone's unsuspecting virtual face.

I said before that the title and abstract don't necessarily describe what the inventor owns. Such is the case in this patent. The inventor does not own a 3D cosmetic case, but rather a 3D cosmetic case that allows one to simulate the application of makeup.

I skipped over this before, but the disclosure does talk about all the extra stuff. It's not terribly detailed - not as much explanation as I might like to see - but a touch panel display and an optical pointing sensor are both mentioned in the body of the patent. Also mentioned is the idea of virtual cosmetics.

Why is there a disparity? I can only speculate, but one explanation is that the inventor originally applied for the patent on the assumption that a broader claim could go through. Maybe the original claim given to the US patent office had just two image capture units and a stereo image display? I am surmising here, but the patent examiner may have found some prior art, and responded back with something like "Sorry... been there, done that." Then the inventor may have responded by adding limitations to the claim. The patent examiner then responded by allowing the amended claim. This sort of thing happens all the time.

now if this question were important to me, I would look to the official record of the dialog between the inventor and the examiner. This is called the "prosecution history", and it's stored in the "file wrapper". The file wrappers are available for public consumption, but that goes beyond today's lesson.

Oh yeah... one more thing...

I was so excited by the technology the first time through this that I lost sight of one little thing. When a woman looks into the mirror of a compact, she is seeing her face as if it were sitting on the opposite side of the mirror. The right eye sees one view of the face, and the left eye sees another. While it is cooler than bean salad on New Year's Day to use a pair of cameras and a 3D display to simulate this three dimensional effect, a mirror is a somewhat simpler and cheaper means to perform this function.

Here is another guess about why there is a disparity between the title, abstract, and background of the patent and the claim. Maybe the inventor, like me, got all wrapped up in the excitement of the cool technology and didn't see the obvious - that a mirror could do the same thing. But maybe this guess is a bit far-fetched? I'm probably the only person who would make such a silly mistake.


The information on this blog post has been provided for entertainment purposes. It may perhaps actually be didactic as well. But, I am not a patent attorney, and I make no claim to having made anything more than a cursory examination of this patent. Who knows... maybe everything in this blog post was made up? Seek a patent attorney if you are in need of legal advice on intellectual property. But if you are ok with illegal advice, I will be glad to provide you with all the illegal advice that you can afford.

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