Inventions and the metaphysics of obviousness

In US patent law, one of the key requirements to grant a patent is that the patented idea is non obvious.   The legal meaning and implications of non obviousness have attracted considerable discussion and research.  Obviousness puts a threshold for invention and differentiates normal problem solving skills from the qualities required of an invention.

This raises an important question regarding the use of structured thinking tools such as TRIZ to create patents.  If we take the extreme case and imagine a patent machine.  A machine which takes as input the current state of art and comes up with new ideas based on a set of manipulations and predefined criteria.    The question is whether the output of this machine is patent-able, or are the obtained patents obvious because anyone skilled in the art following the same instructions would have found them ?

It would seem that the invention requires something beyond the predefined instruction set, an expected stroke of genius, to convince the USPTO, the idea is worthy of a patent.  This also highlights one of the differences between problem solving and inventing; which is framing.

When you solve problems, the goal is to find a solution.  This solution can be tested and verified and the problem resolved.  However not every solution is patentable or an invention.  Putting aside issues of novelty, and focusing on the obviousness, the question is one of context.  TRIZ for example offers structure for solving problems, but not of wording or defining the problem.  Hence in the case of TRIZ, the obvious part may be the solution, but framing the problem is non obvious and yet since it leads to a solution, it is at the heart of the invention.  In cases where the creative process creates many options to choose from, the question is whether the choice is obvious or not.

The situation is somewhat analogous to photography.  After all, a photograph is a representation of the world. Something that everyone sees.  However,the photograph frames reality.  It focuses on some elements while relegating others to the background or outside the frame.  By doing so, we can now see things we had not seen previously. The frame has created a new context.  Similarly in inventing, the act of framing, putting boundaries, changing view point, focus, or even colors brings to light things that were not obvious.

On a practical note, to invent we need to go beyond problem solving.  A problem is a good starting point, as is a solution. But we then need to go beyond that, looking at it from different angles, uses, aspects.  In framing the problem or solution in several ways we have a unique view, which sometimes leads to inventions.

For example we can start with a problem of the phone of the future.  Some envision that Glasses would be the way we communicate.  They provide vision, hearing, situation awareness.  But they seem to lack user input methods.  So this is a good place to think about.  What kind of input do we need to provide and how do the glasses use this input.  we can imagine 3D image capture and the use of hands and gestures.  This by itself is obvious.  Yet what kind of gestures make sense and which do not.  Can or should we overlay the commands on the hands or surface, and how can we provide tactile feedback.  All these questions can find solutions.  Some obvious and some not.  But even a simple question like gesture recognition can be challenging in the context of eye glasses as they contend with challenging angles, weight and dimension limitations and user modalities.  We need to focus on one aspect and drill it down to enablement.  But at this stage its clear, that no route is obvious.  Hence the outcomes might be patentable.

 

 

 

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