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Apple has filed a patent application for a "multi-touch gesture dictionary". This has spurred some debate in the IxD community. Can you patent a language? Is it good? Is it evil? Etc. etc.
1) Gestures used for controlling
machines via touch screens do not constitute a language,
linguistically. Gestures are simply a collection of commands. No
language has ever been patented, not braille, not sign language, not
There is 20+ years of prior art in this field (research on touch screens and gestures) and anyone trying to patent a set of gestures will have a really hard time finding gestures that are not already "prior art". All the good ones are already "taken".
2) Many of us have tried our hand at designing icons and know how hard that can be; very few commands can easily be visualized iconically. The best touch screen gestures are symbolic/iconic. A symbol/icon is based on imitation; the "flick" scroll gesture is one example. You might argue that Option-C or Ctrl-C are symbols as well, they "imitate" the word "Copy". Trouble is that you soon run out of "symbolic"/iconic gestures and you have to use signs instead. Signs have an arbritrary relationship to their 'meaning' - the command they signal, and they have to be learned and memorized. What is the relationship between Option-V or Ctrl-V and "Paste"? (The only "relation" is spatial on a qwerty-keyboard: the V key is next to the C on the keyboard, and "Paste" often follows "Copy".)
And this might just be the point of the Apple patent! Apple seeks to patent every imaginable way to assist learning sign gestures. Since there are so few symbolic gestures, Apple knows you are going to have to start learning the sign ones. And they want to ensure that you can't get help without some money tickling into the Apple bank account.
I believe they simply want to patent how to learn gestures.