I came across an article on Hacker News that cited this recently issued patent by Apple:

Patent Number 8,577,392

Title System and method of determining location of wireless communication devices/persons for controlling/adjusting operation of devices based on the location

Assignee Apple, Inc.

Priority Date June 13, 2012

According to the Hacker News article, the patent relates to proximity based home automation. I am sure there has to be prior art on this. They talk about it in the movie AntiTrust and I'm pretty sure I've seen videos on the internet showing people using a proximity based system to turn on lights, computers/etc.

Claim 1 -

A device for relaying location information, the device comprising:

a) A receiver to receive first signals from a plurality of first devices associated with a person, each of the first signals comprising first data, the first data being indicative of an estimated location of the person, wherein, for at least one of the first devices, the first data is indicative of a real-time user-input activity;

b) A location estimator to estimate a location of the person associated with the plurality of first devices, the location estimator comprising: - a data aggregator to aggregate at least some of the first data in the first signals; and

c) a weight assigner to assign one or more weights to the first data in the first signals, wherein the estimated location of the person is based at least in part on the assigned weights;

d) A signal generator to generate one or more second signals based on the estimated location of the person, each of the one or more second signals comprising second data; and

e) A transmitter that transmit the one or more second signals to a plurality of second devices.

It talks about doing certain actions while in different locations, and the lifehacker link below talks about doing different things based on different networks you connect to, which sounds a lot like this patent.

Is this something that can still be reversed due to prior art?

(A limited example could be this: lifehacker.com/265822/automate-proximity-and-location+based-computer-actions from back in 2007)

  • 1
    The claims cover a more complex system than just doing things while in certain locations.
    – George White
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 16:44
  • The claim covers a device, not a system. Like many old devices used to "relay information", this device has a receiver, a processor, a signal generator, and transmitter. As is the case with many old devices with such functionalities, the processor in this device is "capable" of determining the location of other devices based on signals received from those other devices (directly or indirectly). So why was this patent granted over that prior art? Is it the case that a device can be patented over another merely by reciting a "new" information source and recipient (e.g., my sis and yr bro)?
    – Dart
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 2:53

6 Answers 6


IANAL, but wouldn't the famous IFTTT (If This Then That) qualify as prior art? it acts as a "Relay Server", aggregating 'signals' and triggering 'actions' based on 'aggregated' data

This website allows you to define, from a broad range of triggers (on the internet) to define general actions.

These triggers include location-based triggers, such as FourSquare-checkins.

Possible actions include triggering home-automation "Smart devices", specific example: Belkin's WeMo smart plugs: https://ifttt.com/wemo_switch


IFTTT acts as the receiver from claim 1.1, receiving "first signals" from "first devices associated with a person" (Phones via Foursquare, but also other online accounts) IFTTT then acts as the "signal generator"(1.3) and the Transmitter (1.4), for example via the WeMo channel, to trigger "a plurality of devices" ('up to 72 WeMo switches', but also 'sending text messages', 'posting twitter updates', etc.)

  • Interesting thought, I hadn't thought about ifttt, that's a good point, and I guess when i think of a "relay server" isn't that just a program running on a computer, would it make much difference where the server is? (in your house/in apples house?) Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 1:57
  • The claim doesn't seem to specify any restrictions on location for neither device, person nor action. Probably deliberate (allows your iPhone as the trigger, and your home-iTunes-server the relay, but also a phone-app as relay; why be specific when you can be broad). One thing that didn't occur to me at first reading: does "a device" explicitly require hardware? then IFTTT may not qualify. On the other hand, numerous homebrew projects of Raspberry Pi users, doing all sorts of home-automation, probably qualify (though I've yet to come across a specific example) Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 15:59

If you take a look at the drawings, abstract and claims you will see that a "relay server" between the user's devices and the home automation technology is required. The relay server consolidates, converts, determines locations and coordinates commands. Any prior art that is located would need to teach these elements. There are several USPTO process that can be used to try to narrow or knock out an issued patent. Ex parte reexamination request, inter partes review and post grant opposition. The least expensive is ex parte reexam and it costs $6000 in USPTO fees to request + whatever patent attorney fees to draw up.

  • So once a patent has been granted, (in this case), to reverse it, would require legal action (and obviously related fees involved)? (sorry I'm pretty new to this), in other words, if someone wanted to fight this they may be able to, but simply providing "prior art" at this point isn't sufficient enough for a reversal? Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 2:00
  • Once issued a patent is presumed valid. It was granted by a government action and won't go away without a government action. One way a patent can be declared invalid is when the patent owner sues for infringement. The defendant will say they didn't infringe and it isn't valid anyway. They might win the argument that it should be torn up. The other way to attack a granted patent is by throwing it back to the USPTO for a re-examination based on new evidence. Of course, the whole thing is way more complicated.
    – George White
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 2:20

Also, with respect to your remark about "obvious (as a whole)", all that the language about "as a whole" stands for is that you can't simply identify each element recited in the claim as old and conclude that the claim is obvious. This is because some combinations of old elements produce unexpected results. It certainly does not mean that all claims that recite a new combination are non-obvious, which is how people who habitually defend this kind of junk try to spin it. I certainly considered the claim "as a whole" before I presented my views about the claim. Nothing about the combination of those old, well-known functions into a single device suggests that the device is non-obvious in view of the reams of prior art teachings about the ability of computerized devices to transmit information about their locations to each other and, in response, perform whatever act is desired by the programmer (open a door, turn out the light, turn off the TV). Heck, it was already old that a computer could "see" you coming and perform some act based on that (turn on a light, open the door0. Now it's non-obvious to stick a couple intervening devices into that process? Give me a break.

  • 2
    I imagine a manager at Apple is the force behind this rather than a legal genius out to make a buck. Litigation is lucrative for attorneys but patent prosecution is not a gold mine. In my view, the first part of your comment on "as a whole" is correct and having an unexpected result is great for patentability. I disagree that a combination of old things needs to have an unexpected result to be non-obvious. Without studying the history of the case and doing a search I don't have enough information agree or disagree that it is junk. I hope our exchange is educational for readers of Ask Patents.
    – George White
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 0:31
  • For the record, I didn't say that "combinations of old things need to have unexpected results to be found non-obvious". As you realize, however, it's certainly helpful. As in many similar claims, this claim describes a device that combines old features for their known purposes. There is nothing about the device that is new or non-obvious. If anything (and even this is dubious) the only "new" elements in this claim are not describing the device at all but rather the relationship of the device to the source and destinations of the info received and sent by the device, respectively.
    – Dart
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 4:17
  • What you see Apple doing here is the equivalent of trying to claim a "non-obvious" car based on the recitation of a "new" grocery store location and a "new" housing development that the car is "capable" of carrying passengers (or information!) to and from. Apple isn't alone in this endeavor of course. The USPTO does everything it can to look the other way. Why? Follow the money.
    – Dart
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 4:20

The complete patent manage to describe a typical PLC as used in industrial automation. You have a signal source, a device to process the signals and a means to output signals externally. If this is about the relay server, there should be enough prior art by Siemens, Honeywell, Allen Bradley etc. to invalidate the claim.

The process that is purported to be done by this device is less complex than your normal industrial process control (excluding very simple processes). I have worked with more complex systems in industry for the last 30 years.

  • The overall complexity is not an issue as much as the specific elements in the claim. Answers that add content above and beyond existing answers are preferable.
    – George White
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 20:19

The "relay server" is the claimed device. It has all the obvious functions that you would need to be included in a device with the recited functionality and nothing more. The geniuses who invented this realized that if you want a relay server device that, say, turns the lights down when X leaves at room, you need to be able to receive information that can be used to determine the location of X (surprise!), which you can do by detecting input into a "first device" associated with X (surprise!). The "relay server" then needs to be able to process that location information to estimate the location of X (surprise!) and then ... this is the really genius part ... the "relay server" needs to send instructions to other devices with receivers (e.g., the lights in the room) based on the location information. WOW! So cool. So broad. So unbelievably obvious. Heckuva job, PTO.

  • Under patent law, genius is not required. Useful, new and non-obvious (as a whole) in comparison to what came before it is all that is needed.
    – George White
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 17:42
  • I'm well aware that genius is "not required" for a patent. It's also true that to the extent that there is no evidence of any "genius" associated with the claimed "technology" with the possible exception of the "legal genius" who saw an opportunity to make a buck, the claim is that much more likely to be deemed obvious.
    – Dart
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 22:08

This is ridiculous. It plays on much prior art. Pyxos, Zigbee, any asset control company.... I'm tired of stupidly issued patents.

Then there is IEC 61499 for automation types and inherent communication and association.

Again, ridiculous.

  • Most verything builds on what came before it. A more helpful answer would be to show where in documentation one would find the aspects of the claims that are presumably the "new part". for example, claim 1 requires "a weight assigner to assign one or more weights to the first data in the first signals, wherein the estimated location of the person is based at least in part on the assigned weights;"
    – George White
    Commented Nov 14, 2013 at 23:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .