Altitude ranking: Potent patent?

I don’t know much about patent law, but I do know Dutch, so I thought I’d make myself useful by airing some questions about a Dutch article in Emerce from last weekend that profiles Erwin Nikkels of Globe Assistant, the company behind

The article explains that the company has developed EarthConnector, described as a technology that allows companies and organizations to plot their databases on Google Earth, Maps and comparable apps. is based on it. Erwin is then quoted as saying, “In the Netherlands we have a patent on our technology and there are now patent applications in 120 countries.”

I’ve blogged Globe Assistant’s patent before, albeit in a snippy fashion, but this time I asked Erwin for a link to it. (Dutch patent sites are impervious to my searching skills). He was happy to forward it to me.

Here is the link. (Click on “Save full document” to get the entire PDF.)

The title of the registered patent is “Altitude Ranking: het waarderen van data afhankelijk van de ‘hoogte’.” In English it is described thus: “Internet search result display method, uses altitude ranking system to link relevance of objects to viewpoint above virtual globe or world map.” It was applied for on August 12, 2005 and granted on December 1, 2005.

Here’s a translation of the excerpt, in full:

Altitude ranking is a method for the efficient sorting, storing, ordering and presentation of digital data objects, where the relevance of the objects is coupled to the height of the user above a virtual globe (like Google Earth) or digital map.

Increasingly, data on the internet is presented with the help of this kind of graphical environment. With the altitude ranking mechanism it becomes possible to present the most relevant information in a manageable way to the user.

Depending on the ‘height’ of the user, a selection is made of the available data. When the user’s height is altered, automatically a new selection is made and presented.

The patent goes on to explain in detail how this works: Objects are ranked by relevance to the user and then sorted in layers, with the most relevant objects becoming visible in the highest layers above the globe or map. As you zoom in, more and more (less relevant) objects become visible.

The patent differentiates between two ranking methods: External ranking and self ranking. With external ranking, an object’s relevance is determined by an external calculation. An example of external ranking is an RSS feed of news items being ranked according to their recency. With self ranking, the rank of an object depends on its popularity in a community, as determined by clicks or zooming behavior. More popular objects first become visible at a greater height.

One mentioned use of this method is for business promotions: Hotel chains engaged in a promotion could have their hotels begin to be shown at a higher altitude, for example.

Another example is for search results returned by the Yellow Pages: The most relevant results would start to be shown at the highest layers. For public agencies, risk maps could show the most dangerous objects from the highest layers.

The patent also covers the ability to use relevance to determine an object’s shape or color: For example, if you were previously on a web page about a specific real estate property, then this property could be highlighted when you subsequently view it on a globe or map surrounded by other objects.

I’m pretty sure I’ve excerpted the patent document fairly, but I would certainly welcome corrections or amendments.

What I’m curious about, as a patent neophyte, is whether this is the kind of patent GIS and search programmers recognize as being substantive — would you consider this method to be patentable? Would you licence it? Is this method something you could see yourself develop as a matter of course in response to a client’s needs, or does it represent a non-obvious yet elegant solution to the problem of visualizing geospatial data inside the confined space of a monitor screen?

8 thoughts on “Altitude ranking: Potent patent?”

  1. The use of apparent height to indicate hierarchy is an old one, in human interface design. Commercial versions never seem to get anywhere, though. (Anyone remember Apple’s mid-90s HotSauce plugin?) This patent does, however, add a geographic component. The use of altitude is common enough in information graphics — but in a live interface? The closest examples of prior art might come from air traffic control or air-defense engagement control systems, or perhaps from experimental interfaces from fine art projects.

    A few years ago, someone developed a way to manage computer processes using Doom. Each process became a monster. To kill a process, you killed the monster. Bigger processes were bigger, stronger monsters.

    Considering the kinds of trivial patents that the US Patent and Trademark Office has issued, I would expect this patent application to meet with approval in the US.

  2. Wow, they have “patent trolls” in the Netherlands too? The world really is becoming smaller.

    My first, second, and third reactions are ones of total disgust. “Scale-dependent rendering” is the official carto-geek term for adjusting the display of features depending on the map scale of the interactive display. And I don’t have my Wikipedia at my fingertips but I’m assuming it’s something that’s probably been done since the advent of interactive displays of geographically referenced data.

    Being a law-abiding citizen and not wanting to get on the wrong side of Erwin, I think I’ll stay up tonight removing all of my shiny, new KML 2.1 <minAltitude> and <maxAltitude> tags. And someone should probably leave a message on the Redlands answering machine that they better make sure there’s none of this new-fangled altitude functionality being offered over the Internet with the forthcoming ArcGIS Explorer.

    Stefan, you can do the community a big favor by publishing the link to Globe Assistant’s RSS feed so we can all keep abreast of the cutting edge innovations that we can happily pay licensing fees for and save us the trouble of re-concocting blindingly obvious innovations.


  3. I’m struggling to comprehend how they could patent a feature of Google Earth. It’s not even a novel use. Earthviewer was built to do what they describe.

    But it’s an interesting tactic. We could try patenting using the backspace key in Word to–get this–delete stuff, and then sue Microsoft for copying our feature design.

  4. Softare patents are so lame! Prior art is pretty easy to find. EarthBrowser has had this exact technology since the late 1990s. You can specify the altitude that a weather forecast will pop up.

  5. I’m only going on Stefan’s article, but from that it looks like the Patent is covering using Rankings to control the Scale-Dependent Rendering, not Scale-Dependent Rendering rendering itself, which clearly has loads of prior.

    While I agree this looks remarkably like a Patent Troll, and is porbably very similar to what Google Earth does with the Communitiy layers (I would imagine they use the rankings from the BBS and possibly even download numbers!), it could still be doing something clever.

  6. Thanks for this useful article. I was wondering about this “claim” of Globe Assistant. Thanks for your research.

  7. And how about the Google Community i’s showing up depending on zoom level and (I assume) ranking of the entries?.

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