The Vive has a massive advantage over competitors: the lighthouse. Also called a base station, the lighthouse is an elegant solution to the complex problem of accurately tracking in real-time a VR user in 3-dimensional space.
For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to understand that the base-station can be produced cheaply and produces incredible tracking accuracy in real time (within 0.3mm, as discovered by Oliver “doc-ok” Krylos in his blog). Pinpoint accuracy combined with cheap production cost gives the Vive a competitive advantage over other systems. Thus, it would be in a competitor’s best interest to ensure that Valve never gets a patent on the lighthouse.
Valve Corporation does not yet have a patent on the lighthouse: they are in the process of applying for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Their application was published in early 2016, and is accessible to the public through the USPTO’s website.
In November of 2016, two third parties filed a “notice of relevant prior art.” While an uncommon maneuver, filing a notice in a competitor’s pending patent application can be advantageous. Both notices were filed within hours of one another and are more or less anonymous. The latter one was filed at 3:00 a.m. EST while the former was filed just before midnight.
Practically all identifying information in the notices has been left intentionally blank. One of them has no correspondence address, both list no deposit account that could be cross referenced, and the notices are not even signed by an attorney (although they are likely prepared by one). One of the petitions points to a random house in Wisconsin.
These notices are not necessarily a bad thing for Valve. By placing more prior art into the application, Valve will be aware of those references and be able to maneuver around them if necessary. This will only result in a stronger patent down the line. It is preferable to be aware of the references now during prosecution, and not five years from now when they could potentially invalidate the whole patent.
However, this does present somewhat of a barrier to Valve. An application becomes a granted patent if the USPTO finds the application to be novel and non-obviousness over the prior-art. Simply put, prior-art is all public information existing when the application is filed. There are over 9 million granted patents and millions more rejected yet published applications, all of which are prior art to Valve’s application.
While the USPTO will usually do a great job searching relevant documents, it is not feasible to review them all. Third party notices, like the ones filed in the lighthouse patent, give the public an ability to give the USPTO notice of prior art that was not found during a search but art that the “public” thinks is important and could reject the present application.
In any event, it is clear that competitors and others have taken notice of Valve’s lighthouse technology and would like to emulate it if possible. Whether or not the USPTO will actually grant Valve’s patent depends ultimately on the scope of the eventual claims and could take years to finalize.