Examiner of Silly Patents, Part 1: Subliminal eyeglasses

Jakke Mäkelä

Every now and then I will take a silly patent and pretend it’s not silly. I will analyze and defend it in all faux-seriousness (see disclaimer at the end).  Usually I cannot defend it, but learn something in the process anyways. [Suomeksi/Finnish: Patenttimörökölli, osa 1]

One excellent resource for crazy patents is here.  Some of them would not make sense even in a parallel universe, but some of them can be explained. Up to a point.  I will start with one that I find endearing:  US 5,175,571 from 1992: “Glasses with subliminal message”. The idea, in short, is to project subliminal messages onto the glasses of the user (for more information on subliminal stimuli, see here).

The patent mentions (without citing sources) that subliminal messaging has been used successfully in the form of audio tapes and “can have significant results in producing character and behaviour improvement …. [and] are also said to produce greater success in business or in personal relationships or in sports”.

The novelty of the invention is that “similar if not better results can be obtained from subliminal-type suggestion, to which the subject is exposed more or less on a continuous basis even while he is engaged in other activities.”  The subconscious images can be either printed onto the glass, or removable disks can be used. The messages can be words, or “for persons with a personality problem such as an inferiority complex or a persecution complex, the graphics might simply be a single face, with a happy smile”.

Indeed. Nevertheless this is a credible patent! Even if subliminal messaging has not been proven to work, it is not physically impossible. (Physically impossible ideas, such as perpetual motion machines, cannot be patented even in the United States).The patent has been cited in later patents, including a design patent for pet sunglasses. There is nothing technically wrong with it.

The minor catch? Subliminal messaging  does not work.

However, I see a way to extend the idea. There are very narrow cases  where subliminal messages affect behavior. A weak effect was seen when a thirsty user had to choose between two equivalent  types of soft drink. Subliminal messages at the exact right moment can influence the choice of brand.  The effect is probably very small, but for a manufacturer even a tiny effect might be worthwhile, since in general advertising is not very effective.

What is needed to make US 5,175,571 work? The application needs to focus on advertising rather than psychological well-being. Take soft drinks. A manufacturer could purchase “space” on the glasses. The glasses need to be context-aware, to know when the user is near the soft-drinks section of a store. This is challenging but doable, for example by including a tiny camera within the glass frame and analyzing any bar codes that the camera manages to catch, or perhaps by using an RFID reader.

There are even more possibilities if the stores collaborate. Put a  Bluetooth receiver in the glasses, and Bluetooth transmitters in the store that identify the aisle. When the glasses detect that the user is at the soft-drink aisle, the subliminal ad is projected to the lenses. Thus the user gets the subliminal message at the only time when it can make a difference: at the exact moment of choice.

Even this version of the patent is silly, of course. Technically speaking, subliminal advertising is illegal in many countries. Even if the legal issues can be ignored: why on earth would anyone agree to wear such glasses?

In principle my attempt is a failure: I simply replaced one silly patent with another silly patent. But still I believe that the exercise was interesting. Things are not always what they seem to be.

Full set of Examinations of Silly Patents: click here.

Disclaimer: these analyses have very little to do with anything, and in particular have nothing to do with legal issues. Most of the patents cited are expired (or should be). I do not touch the “claims” section, which is the legally relevant part. These blogs constitute prior art, so that any new any ideas expressed here can no longer be patented.