Apple under the lens again - this time being sued for a camera with two image sensors

October 19 2018 Do you have a smartphone camera with two lenses?

Apple lens.gif

You too? My current smartphone, from a brand which will remain nameless, has this feature as do many others. Not surprisingly, patents exist for it,, and perhaps not that surprising given the success and profits they are making from smartphones, Apple is being sued by one of these patent owners.

Perhaps what is more surprising, or perhaps unusual, is that the suit is being filed by the original inventors of their patent, who remain some 19 years later as the owners. Back in January 1999 Yanbin Yu and Zhongxuan Zhang, then living in Freemont, California, filed US6611289 for a Digital cameras using multiple sensors with multiple lenses. Claim 1 of this patent reads:

1. An improved digital camera comprising:

  • a first and a second image sensor closely positioned with respect to a common plane, said second image sensor sensitive to a full region of visible color spectrum;

  • two lenses, each being mounted in front of one of said two image sensors;

  • said first image sensor producing a first image and said second image sensor producing a second image;

  • an analog-to-digital converting circuitry coupled to said first and said second image sensor and digitizing said first and said second intensity images to produce correspondingly a first digital image and a second digital image;

  • an image memory, coupled to said analog-to-digital converting circuitry, for storing said first digital image and said second digital image; and

  • a digital image processor, coupled to said image memory and receiving said first digital image and said second digital image, producing a resultant digital image from said first digital image enhanced with said second digital image.

US6611289 patent image.gif

When you look at the specification of this patent, you can see that it is intended that one of the image sensors be black and white. However claim q in its current form has no such limitation, which ,means that this claim could be potentially interpreted quite broadly.

At Ambercite, we are not patent lawyers. So our patent interpretation might end there, along with determining will be an assessment of whether Apple (or my unnamed smartphone) is infringing this patent. Still, it is always interesting to ask:

  • How novel is this patent? In other words. what is the closest prior art, both known and not previously cited?

  • What can patent data tell us about who else could be a target of patent infringement?

Our AI patent similarity tool, Ambercite AI, makes it easy to answer both questions, as will be shown below.

How novel is this patent? (i.e. what is the closest prior art?)

Prior art searching in Ambercite can be as simple as entering the patent number and setting up the date filter (January 1999 is the priority date of this patent), as shown below:

For simplicity, we only requested the 50 most similar patents, but buy changing the settings it could return up to 538 similar patents. Of these 50 patent families, I noticed that only 5 are known citations. This means that the other 45 patent families have never been previously listed in a search report, and could still be potentially relevant.

A simple review suggests that a number of the uncited documents are relevant. Starting in order of similarity rank, I discovered that the first-ranked patent had multiple image sensors, but it was unclear if it had separate lenses. But take a look at the #2 ranked patent, US6765617, Optoelectronic camera and method for image formatting in the same, which was first published in November 1997.

US6765617_patent summary.gif

Another previously uncited - but highly relevant - example in our list is 12th ranked patent US5757423, Image taking apparatus. It also discloses a plural lens unit. Canon filed this patent in 1993 and it was first published in May 1998.

US5757423_patent summary.gif

So US6611289, the asserted patent novel and inventive over the known and unknown prior art? That will remain for patent lawyers to answer. But this simple analysis suggests they will have plenty of new material to consider.

Who else may be at risk of patent assertion?

This requires a slightly different type of search in Ambercite AI, namely a licensing search, as shown below:

This query returned 1457 similar and later patents. Of these results, 124 were known forward citations—but the remaining 1,336 similar patents were not.

One of the outputs from the analysis is “Licensing Potential”. By adding up Licensing Potential values for each applicant, and looking for ultimate owners where possible, we can determine the owners with the most similar and later patents, as shown in the following profile:

US6611289 Licensing Potential Profile.gif

There are some interesting takeaways from this profile:

  • The number one listed company is Xperi. I had not heard of them until today, but they appear to have been very successful over time. It claims that Imaging technologies from (subsidiary) FotoNation are embedded in more than 25% of smartphones on the market today.

  • Other owners on this top-ten list are more well-known (there are actually 150 other owners further down the list).

  • Adobe, Omnivision, Apple, and Microsoft only appear on this list thanks to Ambercite Ai’s “unknown” citations. These are similar and later patents that a conventional citation analysis would have missed. In other words, if you were relying on conventional citation analysis rather than Ambercite Ai, you would have missed these owners.

Please note that none of this analysis suggests that any of the above listed owners are infringing US6611289. But if I was that patent’s owner, I would be looking at these other owners very carefully while considering their commercial products and their filed patents.


This is yet another simple example of the analytical smarts of Ambercite. To learn more how you can access these smarts, check out the link below:

Mike Lloyd