Sportvision and Fenwick & West

We’ve been on a train now for about nine hours, so you can probably imagine that I’m about ready to be done. We should be arriving in Santa Monica in a few hours.

Yesterday was our last day in Menlo Park/Mountain View, and we visited two companies.

The first was Sportvision. Sportvision is one of those companies that you’ve probably never heard of, but you’ve definitely seen their work. Their technology is responsible for all kinds of “virtual reality” images on sports broadcast. Their most famous product is the yellow “first and ten” line that you see superimposed on the field during pro and college football games. They also do graphics and visualizations for hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball, auto racing, and even sometimes skiing. Their biggest area of growth, however, is in data collection. They are putting sensors on players or using cameras to track players, and packaging that data in various different ways to sell to various clients. (The simplest client would be a football team buying the movement and position data for all their players during a game so they can later go back and replay and analyze every play.)

Technologically, this was one of the most sophisticated business we’ve seen. All of their work is based on computer vision and motion tracking, so most of their engineers aren’t just computer scientists – they have to have tons of physics and math.

One of the coolest things we saw was a piece of software that can track a baseball (moving at 80-90MPH), and based on it’s trajectory, calculate it’s spin rate. This is not for the faint at heart.

Even the simple “first and ten” line isn’t nearly as simple as it seems: how do you teach a computer to superimpose the line on the field but below any people or objects on the field? How do you automatically compensate for changing lighting conditions and variable field colors?

We got a great introduction to their business and technology from Michael King, who introduced himself as their director of football, but obviously has a pretty comprehensive view of the whole company.

The other visit we made was to the law firm Fenwick & West, in downtown Mountain View. F & W is a fairly large law firm, but we were meeting with specifically the patent litigation team. They have a ton of large clients, including Twitter, Amazon, and Google.

We had a chance to talk with five lawyers from the patent litigation team, who gave us an extremely well prepared introduction to the basics of patent law, and especially to the problems around patent trolls (TODO add link).

The problems with patent trolls have been well documented, so I won’t spend a ton of time talking about them, but I did want to highlight what I thought was the most interesting point made by the F & W team.

The most common proposal for eliminating the problem of patent trolls involves legislation that bans so-called “non-practicing entities” from owning or legislating based on patents. NPEs are companies who own patents but aren’t involved in a business. Obviously, this describes patent trolls: they exist only to purchase patents and sue other companies based on those patents. They don’t provide any other product or service.

The problem with such proposed legislation is that, technically, universities are non-practicing entities as well. Nobody wants to argue that what research universities are doing isn’t valuable and shouldn’t be afforded patent protection. How do you draw the line, though? It’s difficult or impossible to draw the line in such a way that it excludes patent trolls while still fairly including universities and other non-profit but still patent-producing institutions.

I’m certainly not a lawyer, and I have no idea where to draw the line, but it was incredibly interesting to hear about some of the issues directly from lawyers who have to deal with patent trolls every day!