Is motion control patent a powder keg for mobile?

A little-known company has been issued a broad patent for motion-based smartphone control, which could mean big changes for the mobile industry.

John Paczkowski

Here's a potentially noteworthy development in the patent litigation-riddled mobile device market.

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The patent is No. 7,679,604, "Method and apparatus for controlling a computer system," and it describes motion control as a means of interacting with smartphones and the like.

The invention, the patent's authors explain, "facilitates an intuitive motion control of the application by physically manipulating the electronic device...it enables a user to intuitively control the state and/or displayed content of a computing device without the conventional need of pressing button(s), or manipulating a trackpad, trackball, etc. In this regard, the motion control agent represents a new paradigm in user control of computing systems."

Image from patent application USPTO

Sounds quite a bit like the motion control you find today in Apple's iPhone, doesn't it? Or in Palm's Pre. Or Google's Nexus One. Or Motorola's Droid. Or Nokia's 5800.

This is interesting because none of those companies owns patent No. 7,679,604. It belongs to Durham Logistics, a Las Vegas-based limited liability company about which I can find little information.

When I contacted the Nevada Secretary of State's office about Durham Logistics, it referred me to CSC Services of Nevada, the company that did the paperwork on Durham's LLC status. CSC Services of Nevada refused to provide any information. Ygomi, the company that now owns ArrayComm, the software outfit to which the patent was first assigned, doesn't know much about it either.

Is Durham Logistics a legitimate company? Is it an IP holding company for another entity? Who knows? But, it's sitting on this patent.

Now, I'm no expert on intellectual property, but it's worrisome to me that a patent as broad as this exists at all, let alone that it's in the hands of some mysterious Vegas LLC we know nothing about. After all, patent No. 7,679,604 seems to apply not just to any smartphone with an accelerometer, but to any device that uses any way of measuring motion as a means of control. It's obscenely broad. And it's old enough that it predates many of the motion sensing smartphones currently on the market.

Though issued just last week, the patent was filed in July 2006. And it was preceded by a nearly identical patent granted in 2004 after a 2001 application.

The first smartphones to feature built-in accelerometers--among them, the Sony Ericsson W910i and the iPhone--didn't begin arriving at market until 2007-2008, right around the time the companies building them began filing motion-interface patents of their own.

For example, at least two major motion-related Apple patent applications--"Movement-based interfaces for personal media device" and "Varying User Interface Element Based on Movement"--weren't filed until October 2007.

This means that Durham Logistics could be sitting on a powder keg of a patent, one that, if allowed to stand, extends to a technology that has been widely built into today's smartphones--the one sitting on my desk and perhaps yours as well.

Question is, will the company assert it? And if it does, is there prior art that would render its claims anticipated?