I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to combing through published patent applications for future product feature hints, and I recently came across a fun one from a couple of months ago. It is a Japanese patent application filed by Canon, the photography giant, suggesting that the company is considering replacing the physical shutter button on its cameras with a haptic sensor.

The claims in the patent application cover a small touchpad that would be located where the shutter button would normally be, enabling various controls of the camera by sensing finger motions like tap, double-tap, long push, directional contact, etc. I think it’s kind of a cool idea because, while cameras with haptic screens exist, it’s not fun to smudge your viewfinder while going through settings menus or zooming in on a screenshot.

The reactions to this finding have been mixed. Some people are concerned about what it all means for existing functionality like the half-push for autofocus, while others are more upbeat about the potential. My husband, who has been a Canon aficionado for years, is in the latter camp and believes this could be an intriguing feature.

One suggestion he had would be to either enable reprogramming of the actual shutter button function on another button on the camera (e.g., controlled by a thumb) so that the function of the shutter button remains dedicated somewhere. In his view no real photographer uses the half-push for autofocus function anyway and would want the shutter button to immediately take a photo when pressed (or long push for rapid series of photos). Another thought he had was to keep the shutter button function as-is, and replace the currently available “joystick” feature on many cameras (usually located for control with the right thumb) with a haptic sensor.

The patent cover strategy in action

It’s just fun to speculate on these sorts of rumors, and it goes well beyond Canon and its shutter button technology. There are lots of other websites dedicated to looking at patent publications from big companies like Apple and Google, speculating on potential future features. Of course, these patent publications are usually years ahead of actual product development cycles, and big companies file lots of patent applications on innovations that may or may not make it into a real product.

But this actually highlights a strategy even small companies can use: controlling product feature speculation using publications, including patent applications.

Fly under the radar: Non-provisional patent applications generally publish 18 months from the earliest priority date, which means if your company is in stealth mode and want to keep things under wraps until you are ready, you can file for patent protection on your products and still stay under the radar by requesting nonpublication of your patent application in the U.S. 

Talk up your tech: On the flip side, if you want to make it look like you’ve got a lot more technological innovations than you actually have, and you have a dedicated IP budget, you can file lots of patent applications on even speculative ideas so that, in 18 months, you’ll have a whole slew of published patent applications you can show to your potential investors.

Now, that’s only a good strategy if you’ve got the technical chops and cred to back up your filings as well as good IP counsel to help you navigate your patenting process without busting the bank. Both of these approaches are valid and I have clients in both camps.

Will Canon actually implement the haptic shutter? Maybe or maybe not. Then again, Samsung’s foldable display patent applications made a big splash in 2015 and came into fruition in 2020, so you never know.

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