Apple, Samsung enter DWT touch patent bid battle

By Jonny Evans

Apple [AAPL] and Samsung [005930.KS] are playing patent tango again, sparring for possession of extremely interesting touch-related patents from Californian firm, RPO, market reports claim.

[ABOVE: RPO CEO Malcolm Thompson discusses the Mission: Impossible-like technology.]

Will Apple bite?

No sooner have we recovered from news Apple has acquired technologies which will enable it to beat Google with the best 3D mapping services on the planet comes news it may invest in RPO.

RPO is selling patents for what it calls Digital Waveguide Touchscreen Technology (DWT), which lets you navigate a device using touch -- but without requiring a touch-sensitive layer within the display.

What does this mean? In very basic terms, it means much (c.20%) better battery life and increased screen resolution.  

How? Because DWT uses tiny projected beams of light to detect touch gestures. Intelligent, the technology can take input from anything you care to touch your screen with: a finger, a glove, a stylus, a pen. It can also ascertain what kind of touch you are giving it, in order to, for example, give you a keyboard when you need it, and so on.

Screen_shot_2011-10-31_at_10_04_38.jpg

Actively developing touch-related patents since 2004, RPO went bankrupt when a business partner in the netbook space withdrew from a life-saving deal.

Now the company is auctioning its over a hundred unique touch-related patents -- and Apple and Samsung are the most actively discussed future suitors for the patent portfolio.

"Apple is expected to emerge as a top contender for the DWT patents and manufacturing equipment," claims iRunway. "The absence of a touch overlay would allow Apple to show off the full capability of their Retina display screens, which are currently produced by LG Display."

Be warned: a cynic might observe the notion that Apple may bid for the tech may also help boost interest in the patent sale.

UPDATE:

Since first publishing this story, a spokesperson for Hilco Streambank LLC has issued the following statement in response to queries as to who is bidding for these patents:

"In response to your question about who has expressed an interest in these assets, we have signed non-disclosure agreements with multiple parties and therefore we are not allowed to comment on the involvement or level of interest of any potential buyers," the spokesperson said.

They added: "Many interested parties have approached us through counsel, and so we're largely unaware of who is actually reviewing the patents.  Parties seem to be equally interested in the Digital Waveguide Technology (DWT) as well as the broad touch system patents which may apply to products in the market and may represent a defensive opportunity for incumbent touch screen companies.  Additionally, because we're planning on auctioning the assets in discrete lots, there will be opportunities for interested parties to acquire either a small portion of the assets, or to partner with others as the process unfolds."

Apple has similar patents, but with Samsung committed to introducing flexible displays in its devices starting next year, the tech from RPO could be a stumbling block for the Galaxy-maker's plan.

Why would RPO be interesting? Surely if it had a good technology it would be successful on its own?

It is ironic that Apple's iPad killed RPO when an unnamed Korean PC maker pulled out of a deal which was to see the latter manufacture a next-generation touch-enabled notebook. It seems the manufacturer got cold feet because tablet computers (well, the iPad) ate the notebook industry's lunch.

It is also noteworthy RPO claims its optical waveguide technology is the world's first such platform that's suitable for high-volume manufacturing.

Apple's moves to integrate touch within its OS X and iOS operating systems underlines the critical importance with which the company regards touch-based technologies.

These -- alongside Siri for voice -- are critical to the company's future UI strategies across its range of products. As such, Apple will inevitably take a look at what RPO has to offer.

Hilco Streambank LLC is handling the liquidation. The core of the assets made available for sale include patents relating to

  • Proprietary polymer materials
  • The optical-touch system called Digital Waveguide TouchTM (DWTTM)
  • Various generic touch screen related patents.

"Uniquely both the polymer and waveguide production process of RPO have been fully developed through to market, with all aspects of high volume manufacturing addressed," the sales note states.

"The IP portfolio includes all standard operating procedures, recipes, formulas and the like, that would be required by an acquirer to develop and make polymers and waveguides for DWT, or other applications of these waveguides," they add.

We'll see if Apple bids. At present it knows it has a two-year advantage over Android just through deployment of the industry-defining Siri technology.  For RPO, the bid deadline is November 29 with the auction set to take place on December 1, according to the sales documents.

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