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 Earthbooker.net.
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. Earthbooker.net 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?