Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Patents surrounding Pokémon Go – has someone caught them all?

If you have been on the Moon for the past month and have only just returned, you might just have failed to detect the existence of the phenomenally successful Pokémon Go -- is a free-to-play, location-based augmented reality game that has already spawned its own vocabulary and counter-culture. Readers of this weblog may or may not be players, but they may be pleased to learn a bit about the legal bases upon which such games are built. Accordingly here's our latest Cipher Snapshot, focusing on the highly topical issue of Augmented Reality. 


Patents surrounding Pokémon Go – has someone caught them all?

• Augmented Reality (AR) technology has seen a surge in innovation since 2010
• AR relies on many technologies and has many applications
• Main technologies are head-mounted displays and image processing
• Siemens were pioneers and hold a large and mature patent portfolio
Pokémon Go has proven that AR is here to stay. Granted, the excitement is not just about being able to see Pokémon in real life surroundings, with the help of your device’s camera. Its appeal also comes from the immersive user experience, in which players find themselves in an alternative world in which they are surrounded by characters they know and love. It’s all about discovering, locating, tracking and collecting those characters.

The craze surrounding this game has led Nintendo to more than double its share price, adding 15 billion USD to their market cap in just 13 days in July 2016. This suddenly makes the AR market very interesting for a number of players, and as the technology is not novel, having been around for a while, the question is who might benefit from this craze?

AR applications rely on a large number of underlying technologies, naturally tied to mobile devices but also specific applications or a combination of technologies.

Figure 1 breaks down currently active AR patents by technologies. The two biggest areas, making up more than half of the assets, are “Head-mounted AR display” and “Image processing” patent families. This is a good reminder that Pokémon Go is not the first attempt at AR. In 2013 and 2014, Google had their own craze with the now discontinued Google Glass; back in 2011, Qualcomm had an AR showcase at the CES show in Vegas, with something much more similar to Pokemon Go; and we see a number of related patent-intensive technology areas, such as mobile devices, GPS/location and AR gaming but these are not the only applications. The breadth of the application possibilities of AR are shown by smaller clusters within robot control and medical applications.

The two key questions are therefore: how old is this technology and who owns it? Figure 2 shows the split between applications and granted patents among the biggest innovators in the market. Notably, most players have a large pipeline with a large proportion of pending patents. Microsoft, which is soon releasing the “HoloLens”, has the largest amount of granted as well as total patent families. In contrast to other companies, Pantech, Siemens and Amazon have mainly granted portfolios. Magic Leap – the company that has raised major funding by the likes of Google and Alibaba – has the largest fraction of pending patents among the big players.

Figure 3 gives us a timeline view of innovation, hinting at who might have foundational innovations. Most notably, Siemens were pioneers with dozens of patents from 1999 to 2003, mainly related to medical and industrial applications. In fact, there are only a handful of other AR patents from that same period, with overall filing activity taking off in 2010. Pantech stands out with a single peak in 2010 and seems to have stopped the pursuit of more patents in the area. Microsoft were most active 2011 to 2013 until Magic Leap, with a strong increase in filing, surpassed them in 2014. Both Microsoft and Magic Leap focus mainly on technologies related to head-mounted AR devices.

Figure 4 shows a dynamic view of who is gaining and losing “patent market share” within the different technology areas. The size of the rectangles indicates the size of granted patent portfolio (i.e. the company’s share of the current patent market) and the colour indicates change in “market share” from 2014 to 2016.

Qualcomm, LG and Microsoft are gaining market share across the board, whereas incumbents Siemens and Pantech as well as Google have lost most patent-related market share in the past two years.

The AR market shows a lot of movement and tremendous growth lead by major companies. Different actors are moving in and out while the general trend is increasing. Although AR patenting has seen an enormous increase in filing since 2010, the “elephant in the room” is perhaps the fact that Nintendo is not a strong player in this space. In contrast Siemens, which might not be making AR headlines, stands out among the companies as it holds approximately 20 very early patents from between 1999 and 2002. This gives Siemens the opportunity to emerge as one of the big winners in AR as this will, if Pokémon Go is a sign of things to come, no doubt be another IP battlefield.

You can also access this Cipher Snapshot here. Other Cipher Snapshots can be accessed here.


  1. Presumably if the Pokemon game is free to play, Nintendo must be making money out of its soft IP in branded toys, souvenirs etc. is that correct?

  2. There's a good IPKAT post on Pokemon Go, but no discussion of patents http://ipkitten.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/gotta-catch-em-all-without-infringing.html

  3. Our attention has been drawn to an IP Finance blogpost by Dr Neil J Wilkof on the monetization aspects at http://www.ip.finance/2016/08/will-pokemon-go-unlock-ip-value-for.html

  4. There's a follow-up on IP Finance that references this post and has some encouraging things to say about it. You can find it at http://www.ip.finance/2016/08/pokemon-go-aistemos-sheds-light-on.html

  5. Great topical example Nigel!

  6. I'm guessing that nobody here has actually played Pokemon Go. It's really not augmented reality at all. The pokemon are overlaid on whatever your camera is looking at, and bear no relation to what is being viewed. Pokemon Go is a clever application of Google Maps, which its creator played a part in developing, but really isn't augmented reality. Using AR to describe it is in fact quite misleading, as real applications of AR are far more impressive (and very much harder to get right).

  7. Thank you Tufty the Cat. We suppose that there is a bit of a debate as to what precisely constitutes AR, and it appears to be understood that even imperfectly or partially augmented reality falls within the general scope of the term. IEEE Spectrum regards it as AR but as a "sterile experience" http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/consumer-electronics/audiovideo/beyond-pokemon-go-the-secret-to-a-better-augmented-reality-experiene and both the business media and the popular press seem to be treating it as AR. However, your comments are noted, and not without considerable sympathy for your criticism.