A good friend of mine recently asked me why I write about patents. Part of my answer was the ability to “connect the dots” between the present and the past. Developments in technology do not arise in a vacuum; today’s patented technologies build upon what is called “prior art” and the prior patents that are cited to show the contributions of this art are always part of the patent documentation. Reading prior art citations in a patent is like opening a time capsule; you find the earliest precursor in the past that helped make the new patent possible. Every patent document is its own unique history lesson, and for me, contributes to my broader understanding of the history of technology.

When the subject of a new patent touches on an industry in which I have worked, such as television, the exercise of reading it becomes a more personal and less academic exercise for me.

Television is one of the great mega-technologies of the 20th century, and from its commercial inception in the late 1940’s, has gone through a number of significant technical evolutions, such as the introduction of color TV in the 1950s. In the late 1990s, I had a first-hand view of another of the great technical transitions, from analog to digital formats including the introduction of HDTV (high-definition television).

Another example of a major technical evolution in television is buried within a new patent granted to Google, patent 8,719,277 (“Sentimental information associated with an object within a media.”) At the heart of Google’s technology is the use, on a mobile device, of either pressure or time to measure and report a sentimental reaction to content contained in a piece of media such as a video. The intent is to capture sentimental responses from many viewers of the content to develop a useable rating of its effectiveness.

The first citation of prior art made in this new patent is Patent 4,646,145 (“Television viewer reaction determining systems,”) granted 34 years ago to R. D. Percy & Co., Seattle, Wash. At that time, Percy & Co., was one of a number of companies offering television rating services to brands and their ad agencies as well as broadcasters. One of Percy’s competitors in 1980 was AC Nielsen Co.

It was a very pleasant surprise to see that in the Percy & Co., patent of 1980, it had as its first prior art citation patent 2,766,374 (“System and Apparatus for Determining Popularity Ratings of Different Transmitted Programs,”) granted in 1956 to the International Telemeter Corp. This is one of the foundation patents for viewer response measurement technology. Telemeter was an early entry into the pay-television business, begun in 1953, and was eventually acquired by Paramount.

The 1950s were the dawn of the development of devices and technology to measure audience reaction to television shows, and laid the foundation for much of the viewer reaction technology advancements that we have used in the ensuing 60+ years.

Although it was founded in 1923 to serve radio broadcasters and advertisers, Nielsen rose to real power beginning in the 1950’s with its television rating system, creating the standard by which broadcast networks like CBS and NBC competed. We have all heard of the Nielsen rating system, so long a power in the determination of advertising rates that television networks could charge based on the popularity of the programs carried by each network, and the networks’ popularity in the aggregate. By the way, here we are in May, one of the original four months broadcasters called “sweeps,” for sweepstakes. The most important sweep month, historically, was November, setting the rates for the all important Christmas holiday advertisements. The other three were February, May, and July. The most popular network in a sweep month could command the highest ad rates for the period forward until the next sweep month’s results were determined.

Google’s patent updates viewer reaction technology for use on mobile devices. This is exciting because it parallels the shift of content viewing from the home-based television set to mobile devices, a growing trend.

That there is continuity in the evolution of technological change can be seen in this history lesson from television, now carried forward by one of the most innovative companies on the planet, Google, into viewing venues well beyond the home TV set.

If you are like me, a visit to the doctor is not something I would rate as enjoyable or providing an opportunity to have some fun. Yet, turning healthcare into a fun and rewarding game is the objective of Accenture Global Services Ltd., which was granted Patent 8,714,983 (“Multi-player role-playing lifestyle-rewarded health game”). The $2 Trillion (yes, with a “T”) global healthcare market is a focus area for Accenture’s consulting practice. Combining hardware (wearable sensors), software and infrastructure, the technology described in the patent seeks to incorporate—and specifically cites as examples of prior art–a diverse range of sources including social networks, GPS-enabled smartphones and massively multi-player role—playing online (MMPRPO) games. Wryly noting in the Background section of the patent that “healthcare and fun typically do not go together,” Accenture cites the “strong market need to incorporate fun and excitement into gaming that promotes health and wellness to participants” as the motivation behind the patented technology. This is an example of the application of gamification techniques to create a new way to combine and monetize existing elements of the mHealth ecosystem, based on fun-based user participation and reward incentives.