2013-08-14

Co.Labs

Bill Gates’s New Text-To-Video Patent Smells Like Troll Food

On the surface, a new patent from Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold seems like an intriguing idea. Unfortunately, its similarity to a number of failed startups and association with notorious patent troll Intellectual Ventures means it’s unlikely ever to become a real product.



Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold are at it again, this time dreaming about a system that translates a snapshot of text into a video in a new patent released today.

Their patent, “Autogenerating Video From Text,” describes a system for taking images of text and translating them into animated video. The proposed software can even take into account user preferences, like featuring family members in videos (perhaps for the more brutal family tragedies on class reading lists?). Gates and Myhrvold mostly focus on how the system could be used as a classroom aid, especially for students with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and other conditions that make long text passages difficult to read. Visualizing plots and textbook concepts could augment, and perhaps even replace, existing textbook media like images and graphs.

It’s all very cool in theory, but it seems unlikely that the technology will ever see the light of day. Eight other names accompany Gates and Mhyrvold on the patent, implying that the idea rose from an Intellectual Ventures (the patent-hoarding and licensing legal house cofounded by Myhrvold) brainstorming session, according to Todd Bishop of GeekWire. If so, the tech may be vaporware that exists on paper to prep Intellectual Ventures for one of its many, many, many patent lawsuits. In case you forgot, Intellectual Ventures was called “the most hated company in tech” by CNet and prominently featured in an episode of This American Life about patent trolls.

This looks like a classic Intellectual Ventures patent play. The company is infamous for buying or applying for very generic patents where lots of other big companies already operate, and then going after those firms with a series of lawsuits based on suspect patents designed to force the firms to pay up or risk having their own patents stripped away at the margins. The text-to-video market might be an ideal place to launch another such assault.

Remember Qwiki, the startup that developed similar static-content-to-video software for visualizing web searches and Wikipedia content? Qwiki filed its own much more specific patent, “Method And System For Assembling Animated Media Based On Keyword And String Input,” in October 2010 that was published in July 2011, almost six months before Gates and Myhrvold’s, and it wasn’t the only one interested in the space. At the time, at least one other company had applied for a similar patent, which included the ability to import user preferences from Facebook, similar to the Intellectual patent.

Back in February, Qwiki pivoted and relaunched as an iPhone-only app that made slideshow movies out of personal images and videos from the phone’s camera roll, which Yahoo bought in July for $40-$50 million. With its massive cash reserves, the resurgent portal-cum-content site and advertising network seems like an ideal target for a hungry patent troll.

We’d like to believe that this new technology truly has the potential to enhance education. But given the state of the market and the history of the company involved, it seems likely that the patent is nothing but troll food.

[Image: Flickr user James Rhodes]




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