Since Apple is famously secretive about its future product plans, industry prognosticators tend to rely on anonymous insider sources or questionable leaks from the company’s supply chain in order to catch a glimpse of potential products in the pipeline. However, since it is generally impossible to confirm the information from these irregular sources, this method has spawned some notoriously off-base rumors. For example, after visiting various Apple suppliers in China and Taiwan in 2013, analyst Brian White predicted that the company would soon debut an “iRing” accessory that would be used as Apple television set controller, reports AppleInsider.
Fortunately, there is a much more reliable method available to researchers who want to find clues about the types of products and product features that Apple might be developing. Apple regularly files patent applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in order to protect its ideas and inventions. Since patent documents filed with the USPTO are accessible to the public, researchers can sometimes glean an understanding of what products Apple might be developing based on the types of technologies the company explores in the patents that it files.
For example, an Apple patent application titled, “Method and Apparatus For Automatically Adjusting the Operation of Notifications Based on Changes in Physical Activity Level” that was published last summer appears to be related to the Activity app that will feature prominently on the upcoming Apple Watch. The patent describes a contextual notification system for a “processor-based personal electronic device” that issues notifications based on the user’s activity levels.
“[A]n extended period of inactivity triggers a reminder to the user to get up, stretch and move about,” reads a section of the patent abstract. That description sounds very similar to the operation of one of the Apple Watch features that were uncovered in the recently leaked iPhone Companion app. The iPhone Companion app is the program that will enable interaction between the iPhone and the soon to be released Apple Watch.
“The Companion app will let you activate granular fitness features [on the Apple Watch] such as stand reminders when you’ve been sitting, activity progress every 4/6/8 hours, completion of move/exercise/stand goals, achievements, and Monday summaries of movement,” reports 9to5Mac. In other words, the Companion app will issue contextual notifications based on changes in a user’s activity levels. Furthermore, the patent published last year also stated that “[o]ne or more of the sensors may be worn by the user and remote from the device.” In retrospect, that appears to be a reference to the Apple Watch and its built-in heart rate sensor.
Although patents such as the one detailed above sometimes provide glimpses into how a future product will operate, it should also be noted that Apple files a great number of patents for inventions that may never be used in a future product. IFI Claims Patent Services, a company that specializes in analyzing patent data, recently announced the top U.S. patent recipients for 2014. Apple ranked No. 11 in the U.S., with 2,003 patents granted to it in 2014 alone. Obviously, the sheer number of patents granted to Apple makes it unlikely that all of the inventions described in those patents will be utilized in the relatively small number of products that the company debuts each year.
For this reason, it is useful to keep any plausible Apple product rumors in mind when examining the company’s patent documents. This way a researcher can hopefully distinguish between inventions that might be suitable for future products and inventions that are unlikely to be used anytime soon. For example, since there were already multiple rumors about the Apple smartwatch when the patent titled “Method and Apparatus For Automatically Adjusting the Operation of Notifications Based on Changes in Physical Activity Level” was published, it was easier to make educated guesses about how the technology might be implemented.
Using the same methodology, we have highlighted four patents filed by Apple that describe inventions that could soon be implemented in upcoming products.
Patent title: “Multi-functional keyboard assemblies”
Why it’s important: Unless you have been hiding under the proverbial rock, you have probably noticed that many of Apple’s recent product launches have emphasized thinness. In 2013, Apple unveiled the “dramatically thinner” iPad Air with a promotional video that showed off how the device was as thin as a pencil. In 2014, Apple unveiled the iPad Air 2 with a promotional video that featured a pencil being sliced by a laser in order to demonstrate how the device was 18% thinner. Similarly, Apple emphasized the “all-new dramatically thin and seamless design” of the latest iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus models.
Now there are rumors that Apple is developing a dramatically thinner version of its MacBook Air. According to insider sources cited by 9to5Mac, the upcoming 12-inch MacBook Air will be about a quarter inch thinner than the current 11-inch MacBook Air model. According to 9to5Mac’s sources, Apple was able to achieve this thinner profile by making various hardware changes, including the elimination of the standard USB ports, the SD card slot, and the company’s proprietary MagSafe connector. The sources also claimed that the MacBook Air’s keyboard was redesigned so that the keys are slightly smaller and sit closer together.
In the above patent that was first uncovered by AppleInsider, Apple describes a unique type of multi-functional keyboard that would allow each key to be able to “receive at least two distinct types of inputs and/or receiving at least one type of input and providing at least one type of output.” The keyboard would pack additional functions into each key using various methods. One embodiment described keys with miniature display screens that could be customized based on settings.
Another embodiment described touch-sensitive keys that could be operated with swiping gestures, as well as pushes. Other embodiments described haptic feedback mechanisms in keys that would provide output information to the user. One or more of these embodiments could be used to reduce the number of keys (or even eliminate a trackpad) on a computer and allow the overall size of the device to be reduced.
While there’s currently no evidence that Apple is implementing this technology in the rumored 12-inch MacBook Air, it is quite possible that a future MacBook model could feature a multi-functional keyboard in order to reduce the overall size of the device. Based on Apple’s history of trying to pack as many features as possible into the smallest space, it would come as no surprise if the company used the technology described in this patent to make its next-generation laptops even smaller.
Patent title: “Electronic Device Switchable to a User-Interface Unlocked Mode Based Upon a Pattern of Input Motions and Related Methods”
Why it’s important: By all accounts, Apple’s Touch ID biometric authentication system is one of the most useful and popular features introduced for the iPhone over the past two years. By introducing a highly convenient and nearly foolproof method to lock and unlock an iPhone, Apple has dramatically boosted the number of users who secure their devices. At the 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June, Apple SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi claimed that less than half (49 percent) of iPhone owners used a passcode before Touch ID was introduced. However, less than a year after Touch ID was introduced on the iPhone 5S, Touch ID/Passcode usage climbed to 83 percent.
However, the Touch ID system does have some drawbacks. Since Touch ID relies on a fingerprint instead of an alphanumeric code, the security system does not offer users the same Fifth Amendment protection that memory-based passcodes provide, as noted by attorney Marcia Hoffmann via Wired. Security researchers have also demonstrated that the system can be fooled with fake fingerprints that can supposedly be recreated from photographs. However, the new Touch ID system described in Apple’s patent application (first spotted by AppleInsider) would close both of those loopholes by pairing a fingerprint with a specific pattern input motion.
While neither of the loophole scenarios described above may trouble most users, Apple has increasingly made security and privacy a cornerstone of its products amid the public’s growing concern over hacking attacks and intrusive government surveillance programs. Despite criticism from some law enforcement officials, Apple introduced a default encryption setting in iOS 8 last year that made it impossible for the company to access the data stored on a user’s mobile device. Based on Apple’s moves toward increased security, it’s quite possible that a revamped Touch ID system that includes a pattern input motion will be introduced in the company’s future mobile devices.
Patent title: “Browsing Remote Content Using a Native User Interface”
Why it’s important: It’s no secret that consumers are increasingly shifting from traditional TV watching to Internet-based content consumption. According to Frank N. Magid Associates data cited by CNET, 2.9% of pay-TV consumers in the U.S. claimed that they were “very likely” to cancel their service in favor of online alternatives in 2015, an increase from the 2.7% documented last year.
Meanwhile, multiple rumors about a major overhaul to Apple’s set-top media streaming device circulated in the media last year. In March 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple was in negotiations with Comcast about a streaming TV service that would travel on a separate, less-congested part of the network. Several months later The Information reported that Apple had plans to create a unified, Internet-based television service that offers both live and on-demand programming. Although, neither plan has yet to be implemented, the reports demonstrate Apple’s ongoing interest in disrupting this evolving market.
For this reason, the “Browsing Remote Content Using a Native User Interface” patent application that was filed by Apple last October and first highlighted by AppleInsider could play a crucial role in the company’s future Apple TV/Apple television set plans. In the patent, Apple describes a technology that would convert a mobile device into a remote control and interactive second screen device for the content that is being displayed on a primary TV screen. For example, the device could provide details about a movie being watched, including “a list of actors, a movie summary, a duration, movie rating, movie poster images, screenshots, etc.”
Apple has dozens — if not hundreds — of patents that could be utilized in a future Apple TV product, including multiple 3D vision and motion-sensing technologies that it obtained from its acquisition of PrimeSense in 2013. However, while the use of gesture controls or similar technologies for the Apple TV would require an entirely new hardware product, the technology described in the patent above could be implemented through a simple software update for the Apple TV and iOS-based mobile devices. It should also be noted that the use of mobile devices as second screens while watching TV is already a popular activity for consumers, according to a Nielsen survey conducted last year. Because of the ease with which this technology could be implemented and its potential to improve the user experience with the Apple TV, we believe that this patent could play a key role in Apple’s future product plans.
Patent title: “Communicating stylus”
Why it’s important: This patent that was first uncovered by AppleInsider describes a “smart pen” that could be used in conjunction with Apple’s other computer products. As stated in the patent abstract, the communicating stylus is “for writing on any type of surface, such as a piece of paper or a whiteboard and subsequently displaying the written images or text on a display of a digital computing device.” The device could also be “moved in three-dimensional space” to create images on an associated computing device.
Although companies such as Livescribe already manufacture similar devices, the stylus described in Apple’s patent appears to offer more features and flexibility than many other existing products. Apple’s “Communicating stylus” patent is also just one of dozens of stylus-related patents that the company has filed over the past several years, as previously reported by Tech Cheat Sheet.
Although Apple files many patent applications for technologies that may never be used, recent rumors about a larger-screen iPad suggest that the company may be planning to release a smart pen alongside a new tablet. Multiple supply chain rumors about the so-called “iPad Pro” or “iPad Air Plus” have suggested that the device will feature a screen size that is over 12 inches, significantly larger than the 7.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad models currently offered by Apple.
Since Apple does not usually release a new product before identifying potential users, several theories have emerged about the large-screen iPad’s intended market. In 2013, when some of the first rumors about the larger-screen iPad were being reported, DigiTimes cited insider sources that claimed the device would be aimed at North America’s education market. However, after Apple announced its “enterprise mobility” partnership with IBM last year, there was speculation that the device might be targeted at business users. In any case, an iPad with a 12 inch-plus screen would likely appeal to both markets, since larger displays are ideal for group projects. Several media outlets – including The Wall Street Journal — have predicted that the larger-screen iPad will enter production sometime this year.
The potential debut of the “iPad Pro” this year is important because the communicating stylus described in the patent above and various other stylus-related patents filed by Apple appear to be aimed at the same type of users that would be interested in an oversized tablet. Apple even highlighted the use of the communicating stylus by students and teachers in the patent summary.
“This makes it easy, for example, in a classroom setting for a user to take handwritten notes and simultaneously create a digital version of those notes,” wrote Apple. “Additionally, in another embodiment, the stylus allows for the user to write on a whiteboard mounted on a wall and simultaneously display what he has written on a computing device.”
Will Apple debut a smart pen alongside a larger-screen iPad this year as part of an overall push into the education and enterprise markets? Based on the persistent rumors of a larger-screen iPad product and the sheer number of stylus-related patents that Apple has filed over the past several years, we believe that the technology described in this patent has a good chance of being implemented in one of the company’s future products.
Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS