There are many clues about future Apple products in Apple’s patent portfolio. Here, we explore the most exciting Apple patents to see what we can uncover about unreleased products, including the iPhone 7, new iPads, the Apple Watch 2, upcoming Macs and other future tech. What is Apple working on behind the scenes? What can we expect from Apple in the rest of 2015 and the years to follow? Here, we explore Apple’s patent portfolio to find out.
Apple is famously secretive, but like all companies it has to issue a list of patents to the USPTO ( United States Patent & Trademark Office) and these provide hints at future and upcoming projects.
Apple is known for its patents, which are detailed but often try to disguise product plans with in-depth technicality. In addition to protecting the company’s current product line-up from sneaky copycats, many of those Apple patents outline fascinating technologies that the company is working on or is interested in, and show the direction its products could take in the future.
Here are some key Apple patents that give an insight into the kinds of technology Apple is hoping to use in its future products. You can follow the links below to skip to a particular product, or sit back and relax while we talk you through the best bits of Apple’s entire portfolio.
Also read: Apple rumours and predictions
Last updated to include information on a patent about photographing/recording at concerts
What Apple patents say about iPhone 6s or iPhone 7
Many of Apple’s patents could be applied to future versions of its iPhone, perhaps even the upcoming iPhone 6S or iPhone 7. Here are just a few of them.
Read next: iPhone 6s review | iPhone 6s Plus review | iPhone 7 review
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Solar charging phone
Apple has been committing itself to a greener approach for some time now, and a patent awarded in 2015 demonstrates this strategy in action.
It seems that Apple is planning to build solar cells underneath the new iPhone’s touchscreen. The panel would recharge during the day and you wouldn’t need to plug your phone into the socket any more. Good for the planet, convenient for us.
Read more: Why Apple was bad for the environment (and why that’s changing)
Apple iPhone 7 patents: ‘Metal look’ antenna
Apple has always been keen on style. Its products usually feature a premium appearance – but nobody is perfect.
This, it could be argued, was the case with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, whose metallic backs were disrupted by plastic lines. Those lines are important – they’re radio antennae – but a lot of users felt that they spoiled the look of the devices. Well, if one patent is any clue, Apple is trying to put this right.
A new Apple patent describes a material with a metal appearance that would allow wireless signals to pass through. The overall impression would be of a continuous smooth metal surface.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Viscoelastic material
Apple knows that its users – like all owners of tech products – can at times be very clumsy. That’s why it’s devising a viscoelastic material that would absorb impacts. The material would cover Apple devices and make them survive drops far better.
This is a patent that could make sense in all of Apple’s mobile devices and laptops, but the iPhone is the obvious area to begin.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Sidewall displays
Concept by Michael Shanks.
In May 2014, Apple was granted a patent for “Electronic devices with sidewall displays,” which, if ever used, could mean our iPhones and iPads may one day have displays around the sides and edges, as well as on the front. The patent suggests that the sidewall displays could be an extension of the main touchscreen, and they could have interactive or touch sensitive portions.
Apple has several ideas about what the sidewall displays could be used for. In some embodiments, Apple suggests that some app icons can be displayed there, or that the displays could be used for slide-to-unlock functionality, music player controls, messaging readout, caller ID, system controls and more.
Samsung has actually released the Galaxy Note Edge, which has a display that wraps around one edge of the smartphone. You can find out more about the Galaxy Note Edge here.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Accident-free buttons
In May 2014, a patent titled ” Configurable Buttons for Electronic Devices” was published by USPTO, describing a touch-sensitive button that could help prevent accidental inputs. The patent covers a physical button that also has a touch sensor, which would know when a user’s finger is touching it rather than another object in a bag.
The buttons highlighted in Apple’s patent include the power, sleep, menu, volume and multipurpose buttons that are physical on most mobile devices and are therefore prone to accidental input.
Apple’s Touch ID home button uses similar technology to the technology described in this patent, though it’s also used as a security measure thanks to a fingerprint scanning authentication method.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Greater touch accuracy
Along the same lines, Apple has been awarded a patent that could help prevent accidental touch input from iPhone users on the move.
The patent describes a “variable device graphical user interface” that adapts to movement using sensors that detect patterns of motion. This could make it possible to use an iPhone while running or jogging, for example.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Curved display
A patent has been awarded to Apple for the method of manufacturing curved touchscreens, which could mean that the iPhone 6S or other future iPhone or iPad could have a curved display like the LG G Flex 2.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Waterproof components
The next iPhone could be waterproof without sacrificing the design of the famously stylish device. A patent spotted in March reveals that Apple is working to make the internal components of the iPhone waterproof using a protective coating, preventing them from being damaged in the event that liquid manages to make its way beneath the chassis.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Flexible iPhone
Taking that even further, in January 2015 Apple was awarded a patent that suggests that the company is investigating the idea of a flexible iPhone (and we’re not talking about the #Bendgate kind).
The Patent suggests that, by making the iPhone flexible, the user could open a specific application by bending it in a particular way, or even use the flexibility to control a game.
Additionally, by making the iPhone flexible, the device should be more resistant to impacts and therefore more durable.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Your face is your password
In December 2014, USPTO awarded Apple a patent relating to a “personal computing device control using face detection and recognition.”
With the iPhone 6 and now the Apple’s latest iPads, you can unlock the device using just your fingerprint thanks to the Touch ID sensor, but with this patent, future iPhones and other devices could be unlocked using facial recognition. So effectively, your face could soon become your password.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Advanced Touch ID fingerprint sensor
A mammoth 612-page patent application filed by Apple in May 2014 and published by the World Intellectual Property Organisation in November reveals that Apple is investigating further uses for its fingerprint sensing technology.
The Touch ID, introduced with the iPhone 5s, is just the beginning of what Apple could use the technology for. Keeping the sensor beneath the Home button but adding further functionality is one of the features Apple mentions in the patent. For example, Apple could introduce gestures to the Touch ID Home button.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Touch ID display
Apple is even investigating including the fingerprint scanner into the display of a smartphone or tablet, taking the technology even further. In fact, Apple filed a patent describing a Touch ID display back in January 2013.
This technology means that you could place your finger on the display to scan it, instead of the Home Button. We’re not sure if this technology was an original variation to the Home Button scanner found on the iPhone 5S, or if it’ll be combined with the Haptics & Tactile technology to remove the Home Button on a future iPhone and replace it with a virtual on-screen button.
The patent describes a touchscreen display with a fingerprint-sensing layer that could be used to introduce advanced multi-user support.
For example, Apple could use the fingerprint sensing display to only allow particular users to open certain apps. This could be useful for those with children who like to explore the iPad, for example.
Additionally, Apple could take the display even further. It could be used in conjunction with a piano app, for example, to teach users the correct finger placement for the instrument.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Attack detection mode
In March 2014, USPTO published an Apple patent filing that could be used to protect iPhone owners when they’re in distress.
The patent, titled “Mobile emergency attack and failsafe detection”, describes a feature that combines software and hardware to create an emergency services request system that’s build in to a smartphone such as the iPhone.
Using the iPhone’s sensors, the software could detect when the user is in an emergency situation such as a physical attack or car crash and automatically call for help. Users can set a predefined set of contact numbers, or use the iPhone’s automatic service to call local 999 numbers. It can also make use of the GPS to detect the location of the user and call the contact that’s closest.
To avoid an abundance of 999 calls being placed unnecessarily, the service has a number of modes and measures in place, such as audible timers to alert the user that a call is about to be made.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Home button joystick
Here’s a fun one for iPhone gamers: Apple has filed a patent that covers the idea of a joystick built-in to the Home button.
The patent, which was spotted by Patently Apple in January, describes an iPhone Home button that can pop up thanks to a spring beneath it to become a small joystick perfect for games. Cool, right?
Apple iPhone 7 patents: iPhone camera patents
Lots of Apple’s iPhone patents relate to the smartphone’s camera, some of which we’ve listed below.
Read more: iPhone photography tips
Apple iPhone camera patents: Disable camera functionality at concerts
While many patents look to improve the overall iPhone experience, some may not be happy about what Apple’s latest patent entails. Modern-day concert goers know the scene too well; your favourite band is performing on-stage at concert but instead of looking around and seeing excited faces, you see a sea of smartphones and tablets recording the experience. Most do it just to show their friends that they were there, and will probably never watch those videos back, and it can be disheartening for artists.
Apple has come up with one idea to stop this from happening – essentially, the concert organiser would be given a device that emits infrared signals to be placed on-stage. That way, whenever an iPhone is pointed at the stage it’d receive the signal which in turn would disable the camera/recording functionality, forcing users to put their phones away and enjoy the moment.
It has other uses too, like preventing bootlegging – you could either stop people from recording altogether, or add some kind of watermark to the videos/pictures so the person recording can’t claim it as their personal property.
Apple iPhone camera patents: Light Splitter
Lucky iPhone owners of the future may get their hands on a feature currently offered only by premium video cameras.
In March 2015 Apple was granted a patent for a “digital camera with light splitter”. Its project is to create a light splitter system (which for now exists only in high-end video camera) small enough to fit in an iPhone.
If you’re not a camera expert, you might be thinking, “What’s a light splitter system?” In essence, it consists of a cube that splits received light into three colours: red, green and blue. The cube provides three image sensors, each of which receives one colour component.
In the current iPhone, the camera system is such that its pixels capture the three component colours which end up occupying only a single image sensor; this means that they can fill only one third of the image sensor and the colours of the overall picture are not as accurate as they could be.
The light splitter system would be a big coup for Apple. Its iPhone would be able to get high-quality pictures, with more precise colours, especially if the picture is taken at night.
Apple iPhone camera patents: ‘Super-resolution’ photos
Apple seems to be keen to improve the camera capabilities of its iOS devices, and one patent published by USPTO in May 2014 suggests we could soon see iPhones that are able to capture “Super-resolution” photos thanks to optical image stabilisation, which is already a feature of the iPhone 6 Plus.
The patent describes a system that takes a series of slightly differently angled photographs and then stitches them together to create a higher resolution (or super-resolution, as Apple calls it) photograph.
Apple doesn’t suggest that a device would capture every photo this way. Instead, the user would have the option to turn the super resolution mode on, like with HDR and Panorama modes.
There have been several rumours to suggest that Apple plans to introduce a feature like this with its next iPhone, with reports pointing to a “DSLR-quality” capability that would represent the biggest camera jump in iPhone upgrade history.
Apple iPhone camera patents: 3D photographs
iPhones could also soon be able to capture images that appear to be 3D.
On August 2015 Apple was granted a patent that suggests that the company has invented a multispectral imaging process. The system consists of a device built into the iPhone camera that would produce infrared radiation, cast on to the relevant area. An infrared image, reproducing the captured scene in 3D, would then be obtained.
Adding to these hints, Apple recently bought PrimeSense and LiNX Imaging, two forerunners of the 3D photography revolutions. The Cupertino company seems very interested in getting 3D cameras in its phones.
An Apple patent published in December 2013 describes a method of capturing stereoscopic image data, which can be used make a photograph appear to have depth. Future iPhones could be capable of selecting two suitable photos and combining them to create a stereoscopic image, which replicates the way humans perceive depth to create a 3D illusion.
Apple iPhone camera patents: Interchangeable camera lenses
Apple is also investigating the possibility of making interchangeable iPhone camera lenses.
In January 2014, the company was issued two patents that describe methods of attaching lenses and camera modules to devices such as the iPhone and iPad.
The first patent, titled ” Back panel for a portable electronic device with different camera lens options” does pretty much what it says on the tin. It describes a portable electronic device, namely an iPhone, that has a removable case that would allow camera attachments such as wide-angle or fisheye.
The second patent, titled ” Magnetic add-on lenses with alignment ridge,” offers an alternative method of attaching new camera lenses to the iPhone using magnets.
Apple iPhone camera patents: Refocusable photographs
A patent published by the USPTO in November 2013 reveals that Apple is interested in technology that will allow users to refocus a photograph after it’s been taken. Such technology is already used in the Lytro camera, with which you can take a photograph and later choose how you want that photo to be focused.
Some of Apple’s rivals including the HTC One M8 have camera features that allow you to achieve similar results, so it’s certainly a potential feature for the next iPhone.
Before we move on, here’s a couple of videos in which the Macworld team discuss possible new features, design changes and so on that could appear in the next generation of iPhone:
What Apple patents say about future iPads
Many of the patents listed above can relate to the iPad too, including the upcoming iPad Air 3. There are some patents in Apple’s portfolio that seem particularly suited to tablets, though.
Apple iPad patents: Advanced Sensor UI & the ‘pull’ gesture
Apple seems keen to replace, or at least augment touch screen technology with advanced hand sensing. This will detect hand movements surrounding the device.
Patent 8,514,221 shows that Apple isn’t just looking to patent the physical system, but gestures as well. One gesture that is looking to join pinch to zoom, swipe and tap, could be the ‘pull’ gesture. This is where you have your fingers on the screen, and then move them up and away, pulling an object from the screen. What feature this gesture could implement is still in the secret lab, but it will enable an interesting new level of interaction with iOS.
Apple iPad patents: Vibrate feature
Future iPads could have the vibrate feature built in thanks to an audio codec chip that could allow the iPad to set up vibration alerts for notifications like we can for the iPhone.
What Apple patents say about the future of iOS
iOS 9 was unveiled by Apple during WWDC in June, and is likely to arrive on our devices in September. Perhaps the following features will come to iOS in a future version of the software.
Apple iOS patents: Scheduled text messages
Are you worried that your daughter will forget to buy eggs on her way home? You could text her a reminder now, but that could get forgotten too; it would really useful, in that situation, for her to receive the message the moment she passes the shop. Apparently, Apple is working on it.
A patent granted in 2015 reveals that the Cupertino company is trying to devise a messaging system that would let you schedule your text depending on place, time and weather.
Do you want to wish your partner good morning but you’re away from home? The scheduled message system would send your text to your partner as soon as they wake up.
Apple iOS patents: Maps that avoid routes with poor cellular signal
In March 2015, Apple was granted a patent that would make the life of car travellers much easier.
How many times have you ended up following a route into an area with weak signal, then promptly got lost because your GPS stopped working?
Apple is devising a method whereby GPS software can take account of signal strength data when planning a journey. The route you end up with may be longer, but better late than lost.
The technology would measure cellular data signal, taking into account the location of cellular towers and even physical features such as hills. iPhones would also share cellular data signal with Apple. An algorithm would take this information into account and choose a better route for your journey.
Apple iOS patents: Clearer contacts in Messages app
Apple hopes to help prevent those embarrassing misdirected text messages with this next patent, which suggests that we could soon see our friends’ faces as the background to our conversations in the Messages app.
Apple describes an invention that simply uses the contact’s picture as the background image for conversations with that contact. When there’s more than one person in a conversation, Apple adds text and multiple images to the conversation.
Apple iOS patents: Driver lock-out
Apple has been granted a patent that relates to the dangerous activity of texting while driving. Apple has invented a lock-out mechanism for drivers, which would prevent drivers from being able to text while behind the wheel.
One embodiment of Apple’s invention uses a motion analyser, a scenery analyser and a lock-out mechanism to determine how fast the device is moving (indicating that it’s in a car) and where the holder of the device is located (driver’s seat or passenger seat). If the device then determines that the holder of the device is also the driver of a vehicle, the lock-out mechanism will disable some functions of the phone, such as the messages app.
Other embodiments involve slight modification of the vehicle itself to send out signals to tell the device to lock-out, which could hint that the technology may come with a future version of CarPlay.
Apple’s “Auto-station tuning” patent suggests Apple is looking into the ability to automatically switch between radio stations and TV stations depending on user preferences. This could be used to for iOS devices, but it’s possible we could see this technology used in the Apple TV, too.
Apple iOS patents: Transparent text messages
Apple could be planning to introduce transparent text messages with future iPhones or iOS iterations, according to a patent filed in late March 2014.
The system revolves around the background of an application being modified to display a live feed of whatever the rear camera is looking at – creating an effect like the iPhone itself (or at least the portion covered by the screen) is transparent.
The system can be activated via a button inside the app button which then transforms the interface from the regular background to a live video version.
Apple iOS patents: Battery-saving mode
Several of Apple’s competitors have already got a battery-saving mode in their devices, but Apple has yet to introduce such feature in iOS. However, that could soon change if patents published in March 2014 are anything to go by.
Apple appears to be investigating a way to save iPhone battery power by learning the user’s behaviour. Its patents describe a system that can learn patterns in behaviour to figure out when the user is less likely to be using their device, during which time it can automatically reduce performance and disable some features, for example.
Update, 20 August 2015: We now know that there is a power-saving mode in iOS 9.
Apple iOS patents: Age-monitoring
As gadgets age, the performance of those gadgets worsens. Apple has acknowledged this in a patent issued in March that aims to help the aging process of a device happen slower, by monitoring the condition of the device and modifying parameters to maximise its performance, battery efficiency and user experience. The aim is to help the device meet its life expectancy.
What Apple patents say about the Apple Watch 2
Apple’s first smartwatch, the Apple Watch, is arrived in April, and is likely to be the first generation of many. Here, we bring you some smartwatch applicable patents that could hint at future wearables from the company. (If you’re keen to read about Apple Watch 2 rumours, remember to check our dedicated article: Apple Watch 2 rumours and features wish list.)
Read next: Apple Watch Series 2 review | Apple Watch & watchOS 3 tips
Apple Watch patents: Interchangeable wristbands
With the new Apple Watch, Apple wants to combine high tech, style and comfort.
Having previously been granted patents for three different wristbands – Sport Band, Classic Buckle and Link Bracelet – Apple has followed this up with a patent for a three-contacts system that sits on the band attachment and ensures a smooth and quick exchange between different wristbands.
Although this is not a revolutionary idea, we’re sure that Apple Watch users will appreciate the stylistic flexibility this offers.
Read next: Best Apple Watch straps
Apple Watch patents: Heart ID
A patent filed by Apple in 2009 and published in December reveals that Apple is looking into a new way of confirming that you are who you say you are, and we’re not talking about the fingerprint sensor that arrived with the iPhone 5s.
Apple has gone further still, suggesting that a heart rate monitor could be built in to a device to not only provide health and fitness tracking capabilities but also the ability to identify or authenticate the user based on the detected signals.
Apple Watch patents: Liquidmetal
In late November 2013, five new Apple patents were published relating to Liquidmetal, a material that Apple has the exclusive license to. So far, Apple has only used Liquidmetal in the iPhone SIM ejector tool, but the new patents suggest that Apple could be working to use Liquidmetal to build iPhones, iPads and also the smartwatches.
Liquidmetal is extremely strong and durable, and therefore can be used in smaller quantities to get the same level of build quality as aluminium. This could mean lighter, thinner devices are on their way from Apple in the future.
Specifically, Apple’s patents list many products that could benefit from the use of Liquidmetal, including a telephone (namely, the iPhone), an “electronic email sending/receiving device,” a digital display, a TV monitor, an e-reader, an iPad, a computer monitor, a DVD player, a video games console, an iPod, an Apple TV or accessories such as a keyboard, mouse or speaker.
Interestingly, Apple also notes that Liquidmetal can be used in a device such as “a watch or a clock” which could hint that a future Apple Watch that takes advantage of the material.
While we don’t expect Apple to launch products made from Liquidmetal just yet due to the struggles that come with manufacturing with the material, it’s likely that the future of Apple devices will involve Liquidmetal on a much bigger scale than the current SIM ejector tool!
Macworld poll: What do you want from the Apple Watch 2?
We’ve offered a glimpse of future developments Apple is considering for its smartwatch line. But what would you like to see in the next Apple Watch?
What Apple patents say about new Macs
What about the Mac? In this section we examine clues to future Mac developments that can be gleaned from Apple’s patent activity.
Apple Mac patents: Advanced MacBook keyboard
Apple’s Mac keyboards could be getting a pretty cool upgrade if a patent spotted at the end of June 2014 is ever put into use. It describes a method of building mini displays into the keys to provide customisable keys and the ability to change the symbols displayed to suit different languages, musical notes or coding functions, for example.
The keys could also offer haptic feedback, including vibration or increased resistance, where applicable.
Apple Mac patents: Wireless mouse/keyboard charging
Future Apple keyboards and mice could be charged wirelessly using a magnetic transmitters and receivers.
Apple has been awarded a patent that aims to create “efficient and friendly interaction between peripheral devices in a wirelessly powered local computing environment,” using a wireless near-field magnetic resonance (NFMR) to transmit power to mice, keyboards and other peripherals with built-in magnetic receivers.
Apple Mac patents: Touch-sensitive MacBook chassis
Apple could eliminate the need for some of the physical buttons found on the MacBook using this next patent. It describes a laptop that has a touch-sensitive chassis that would allow Apple to introduce touch input to the bezels of a MacBook for the volume and brightness keys, for example.
Another use described in the patent relates to the ports on the side of the MacBook. A user could touch the USB port, for example, and the MacBook would inform them that it is indeed the USB port they’ve located by saying “USB” or displaying a USB-related window.
This patent even suggests that squeezing the MacBook chassis could be an alternative method of input. The user could squeeze the left side of the MacBook between their fingers to lower the volume, for example, and the right side to increase the volume.
Apple Mac patents: Touchscreen MacBook
In February 2013, a newly published Apple patent application led to speculation that Apple is working on a touchscreen MacBook.
The patent application clearly states that the advanced ‘Integrated Touch’ In-Cell display first used in the iPhone 5 could be applied to the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and iMac.
Apple Mac patents: MacBook-iPad Hybrid
Despite Apple CEO Tim Cook’s comments that a MacBook and iPad hybrid product would be like combining a fridge and a toaster, Apple has filed a patent for such device.
Apple’s patent describes a device that would have a touchscreen display that can be removed from the keyboard and trackpad-equipped base, and can also be rotated when attached to the base.
Additionally, power could be wirelessly transferred from the base component to the detached display.
Apple Mac patents: Solar-powered MacBook
A rather adventurous patent published by USPTO in January describes a MacBook display that acts as a solar panel and also a double-sided screen.
According to the patent, the invention would have the normal MacBook screen on the front, and a secondary touch-display that has the ability to act as a solar panel on the back.
This patent combined with the patent described above could hint that Apple is investigating a new type of device that combines the iPad and the MacBook.
There have been rumours about an upcoming ‘ iPad Pro‘, which some believe will be Apple’s first foray into tablet and laptop hybrids.
Apple Mac patents: Siri for Mac
Several patents relating to Siri on the Mac have been published by Apple, leading us to believe that the voice-activated personal assistant is on its way to OS X soon. You can find out more in our Siri for Mac release date rumour round-up.
What Apple patents say about Apple Television & Apple TV
There are lots of rumours related to Apple’s various forays into the world of TV and TV-related devices and services: updates to the Apple TV; the Apple television project that has apparently now been abandoned; and a TV-streaming service to complement Apple Music.
But in these areas too, patents can offer clues about Apple’s future plans.
Apple accessory patent: Apple TV remote with biometric information
On July 2015 Apple was granted a patent that describes an Apple TV remote that uses biometric data, such as fingerprints or facial images.
This device would be a winning accessory for Apple. It would save you time for entering personal accounts, with no need to type in any password. It would let you get content that is targeted just for you, depending on what you’ve previously watched. And parents will instantly see the potential: under-18s wouldn’t be able to access adult content.
Apple TV patents: ‘Desk-free computer’
One of the most recent patents that could well relate to Apple’s future venture into the living room is a patent that described a “desk-free computer” that uses a super-intelligent projector.
The computer’s projector contains an accelerometer, ambient light sensor and depth sensor to ensure the optimum image is projected onto any surface you choose. These qualities combined with the fact that it’s wireless make it completely portable.
Speculation suggests that, if paired with a suitable controller, this patent could be used for the rumoured Apple television.
Apple television patents: Transparent display
In 2014, Apple was awarded a patent for a transparent display that shows images using lasers. This means that, when the display isn’t in use, it simply looks like a pane of glass.
This is a pretty cool invention that sounds very futuristic, but the most recent Apple Television rumours have finally suggested that it’s not going to launch after all, despite years of speculation.
Apple TV patents: Gaming on Apple TV
We’ve been hearing rumours about gaming coming to the Apple TV, which could launch as soon as June at WWDC 2015, so the emergence of a related Apple patent was greeted with much excitement.
The patent described a technology that can allow users to carry out motions to interact with apps by using laser beams that map the 3D space between the device and the user. If this sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because it’s very similar to the technology used in the Xbox Kinect controller, and in fact the patent is officially filed by PrimeSense, the company that Apple purchased in 2013 and is behind the 3D motion tracking technology used in the Kinect.
Apple says that the technology would allow a “gesture-based user interface, in which user movements… control an interactive computer application, such as a game, in place of tactile interface elements such as a mouse, joystick or other accessory.”
What Apple patents say about Apple accessories
Apple doesn’t just patent technology that relate to its main hardware. The company also has several patents covering accessories and other gadgets.
Apple accessory patent: Fusion keyboard
Apple wants to satisfy all its users, both the active and lazy ones. Is it too much effort moving your hand away from the keyboard to grab your touchpad? With Apple’s ‘fusion keyboard’ it shouldn’t be a problem any more.
Awarded in May 2015, the ‘fusion keyboard’ patent sketches a keyboard that features a multi-touch sensor and multi-purpose depressible keys.
Keys would have a touch-sensitive surface and would work like a touchpad; they would recognise touch movements of your fingers and, depending on your gestures, you would be able to generate different cursor inputs, without the need for a trackpad.
The keyboard would also feature keys that can be depressed to various levels. Pressing down a key on the first level would produce a command, but pressing the same key on its second level would result in a complete different input.
The system would also consider your hand differently; one hand would be charged to enter the text, while the other would give cursor inputs.
It might take a bit of getting used to, to be honest.
Apple accessory patents: Health-tracking headphones
In February 2014, Apple was granted a patent for health monitoring headphones that can detect body temperature, heart rate and perspiration levels. This “sports monitoring system for headphones, earbuds and/or headsets” adds evidence to the theory that Apple has a keen interest in the fitness and health industry.
Apple accessory patents: Siri Smart Dock
An intriguing patent filed by Apple describes a “smart dock” that would always be listening for spoken commands. Ideal for use with Siri, the “smart dock for activating a voice recognition modes of a portable electronic device” patent covers an accessory that could include a speaker, microphone and built-in screen as well as the ability to integrate Siri into your home.
When an iPad or iPhone is paired with the unit, Siri would constantly listen out for prompts, such as play a song or skip, for example.
Apple accessory patents: iPen smart stylus
On July 2015 the US Patent and Trademark office published an Apple patent with a revolutionary flavour.
The patent sketches a stylus that is able to record texture, colours and other features of a surface and produce an image similar to the surface recorded.
And Apple seems to have other surprises in store. Its futuristic stylus will also include an inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensor that will be able to collect specific data in order to produce 3D images.
The iPen described in Apple’s many related patents is effectively a smart stylus. It could have sensors that enable the pen to recognise the orientation it’s being held in relative to the touchscreen of the device being used. This would improve the accuracy and experience of using a stylus. It could also have a camera, audio recorder, laser pointer and projector built in.
A patent published in March 2014 describes a stylus that comes complete with an extendable nib that may help to replicate multiple tools such as pens, paintbrushes and pencils. In addition to being able to extend the nib, Apple’s patent also suggests that the stylus nib could be swapped out for a variety of different nibs for different purposes (above).
Further stylus patents surfaced in April 2015, despite being filed back in 2011. The additional application sparked comment from trusted analyst Ming-Chi Kuo who things that a stylus might be launched by Apple in the second half of 2015 as an optional accessory for an iPad Pro.
There have been rumours about an iPad Pro tablet that comes with a stylus, aiming to rival the likes of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3. All of the speculation about the iPad Pro can be found in our iPad Pro rumours article.
And if that’s not enough, even more stylus patents appeared in May 2015, adding a grip sensor and strain gauge into the mix.
Apple accessory patents: Solar charging iPhone, MacBook accessory
Apple’s future portable devices could benefit from a portable solar panel accessory that Apple appears to be investigating. A patent published by the US Patent & Trademark Office in October 2013 describes a power management system that would provide energy for an iOS device or MacBook until the battery is fully charged.
Apple is certainly interested in solar power. The majority of power generated at its iCloud data center in North Carolina is generated from on-site solar panels that could power 17,600 homes for a year, according to Reuters. Just this week, Apple has announced plans to build a components plant in Arizona that will run entirely on renewable energy, including solar energy.
Apple accessory patents: Self-adjusting earphones
In July 2013, USPTO published an Apple patent application covering earphones that can automatically adjust audio output based on the quality of the seal detected by a built-in microphone or by measuring electrical currents.
The patent describes earbuds that can measure how well they are sealed to user’s ears in order to adjust the audio to provide the optimum listening experience.
Apple accessory patents: Hotspot
Apple could be working on a wireless hotspot if a newly spotted patent is to believe. The application, which was actually filed back in 2013 but published in May 2015, shows a cylindrical wireless hotspot that would act as a way for devices to connect to the internet by converting a carrier’s signal into WiFi.
Turning on the hotspot would require a simple twist, and there would be no buttons involved.
Apple accessory patents: Advanced Smart Cover/ Smart Case
Apple has published several patents relating to its Smart Cover and Smart Case designs for the iPad. Each patent adds advanced functionality to the cases.
In June 2014, USPTO published an Apple patent filing for an “Integrated visual notification system in an accessory device,” which describes an iPad case or cover that can protect the screen while also providing illuminated alerts when the iPad gets a notification, for example.
An Apple patent that emerged in March describes an iPad Smart Cover that acts as an inductive charging point to provide wireless power to the iPad and other devices.
When Apple sent out the invitations for its iPad Air launch, it was widely expected that Apple was about to launch such accessory, as the company hinted “We still have a lot to cover.”
Another Smart Cover that Apple’s been investigating features an integrated multitouch keyboard. The keyboard, while part of the Smart Cover, can be detached for more comfortable use.
What Apple patents say about future tech
While many of Apple’s patents can be related to current Apple products, some are extra advanced and seem quite futuristic. Here’s a peek of what the future could hold if the technology listed in Apple’s patents ever become a reality.
Apple future tech: Siri-controlled home
Apple has been granted patents for a system of sensors that could allow Siri to take over your house. Together, the network of sensors could be used to detect motion, time, light and more to help Siri provide relevant information and carry out actions.
One example used in the patent filings is that Siri could remind you to take your medicine when it detects that it is 8am and you’re in the kitchen (presumably where your pills and water are).
This patent was actually filed back in 2005, before the first iPhone had even launched (the original iPhone came later in 2007). The patent references other patents that date all the way back to the 1970s, so it’s clear that voice control has been a keen interest for Apple for years.
Apple has already kicked off its HomeKit movement, and speculation suggests that Apple will make Siri part of a new Apple TV that will act as a hub for the smart home system.
Apple future tech: Virtual reality head-mounted display
Apple has been awarded two patents by USPTO that cover head mounted displays, one that would work in a similar way to the Oculus Rift, allowing users to play immersive games wearing the goggles, and another that takes a more Google Glass approach with a smaller design.
The first of the two head-mounted displays described in a patent filed in 2006 is designed to provide optimum image quality using a laser light engine. The second patent, filed in 2008, describes Apple goggles with two adjustable screens that can be aligned with your eyes and adjusted for those who wear glasses.
Further still, the patent suggests that the goggles could identify users by tracking eyeballs, voice and fingerprints.
Apple future tech: Virtual keyboard
In February 2013, USPTO published a patent that describes a new depth perception technology that could be used to introduce virtual keyboards.
The application covers a “Depth perception device and system” which can determine the distance to an object or the depth of an object using a combination of image capturing sensors and lasers.
The technology could be used in combination with a projected control panel such as a keyboard to create a virtual keyboard. The technology would be able to determine the selection of a particular button or input of the control panel by determining the depth of a user’s finger, a stylus or other input mechanism.
Apple future tech: Holographic touchscreen
This is another pretty cool patent from Apple that gives us a glimpse at what the future could hold. First spotted in September 2014, the patent covers an advanced display that combines lasers, micro lenses and sensors that enable it to put out a three-dimensional holographic image that’s completely interactive. (I can’t stop imagining this scene from The Hunger Games).
Apple future tech: 3D gestures
We’re not expecting holographic touchscreens to arrive any time soon, but this next patent from Apple seems much more realistic for a 2015 or 2016 release. It details a “Three dimensional user interface session control” system that would take advantage of the motion-sensing hardware the company has access to after it acquired PrimeSense, the company behind the Xbox’s Kinect controller.
The system would work through the use of a camera attached to the top of a TV or Mac that would detect 3D motion gestures made by the user and react accordingly.
Apple future tech: GoPro rival
Another patent that could result in an Apple product in the not-too-distant future is one that was granted to the company in January 2015 for a remote-controlled action camera that’s a bit like the GoPro (but not quite, because according to the patent Apple doesn’t like the GoPro very much).
You can find out more about Apple’s rumoured action camera in our Apple wearable camera rumour round-up.
Below are some of the patents we had in this article that have now been implemented in new products. They’re in their original format, so you can see what we thought the technology might be used for (and actually still could), followed by the reality of what Apple has used the technology for so far.
Apple hasn’t given up on Haptic feedback. What seemed a bit of a buzz technology for other companies a few years ago is still being developed inside the Apple labs. Haptic feedback systems put a low level voltage through a display to recreate the physical sensation of touching buttons on a flat piece of glass.
Apple’s U.S. Patent No. 8,378,797 for a “Method and apparatus for localization of haptic feedback” shows that Apple is looking to develop a more accurate haptic feedback system. It is clear that haptics can move far beyond the ‘buzzy’ screens of older smartphones, and could enable apple to create a virtual home button, and on-screen keys that feel similar to the real thing.
We think this technology has been used in Apple’s new Force Touch Trackpad, which is found on the company’s latest MacBooks. It uses haptic feedback to trick the user into thinking they’ve physically clicked the trackpad, but in actual fact the trackpad doesn’t move at all – it simply detects how hard you’re pushing to know whether you’re tapping or attempting to click.
See: How does Foce Touch work?
An additional patent relating to the way we use the iPad describes a pressure sensitive display. USPTO in January published a patent that covers a device such as an iPad with a display that uses built-in pressure sensors to enhance navigation.
The patent, titled “Gesture and touch input detection through force sensing,” suggests future products could have at least three force sensors beneath the screen.
The Force Touch display in the Apple Watch seems to use this technology. Like the Force Touch Trackpad, it can detect pressure and therefore allows new gestures.