Apple's engineers may have struck gold again, if this patent ever goes from paper to marketplace, that is. Even Apple's engineers consider the idea of an iPod or iPhone Smart Device Cover, nothing shy of being a Paradigm Shift in the industry. Don't take my word for it, here's what they actually stated in the patent: "Advantageously, the cover or outer covering according to various embodiments can provide a paradigm shift for electronic device covers, which have conventionally been provided for protection of outer physical surfaces of portable electronic devices. Now, the cover or outer covering can operate as an electrical accessory for the portable electronic device." Today's report provides you with the first in-depth peek at this exciting new concept that will revolutionize the device cover segment of the industry. This report covers everything from the basic mechanics to the functionality right on through to applications that could apply to gaming, texting, video conferencing and even a solar panel version that could have your iPod running many times longer at the beach. And – If you happen to be a BlackBerry die hard, then you just might find the solution you've been hoping for: an iPhone with a physical keyboard. It appears that adding iPhone and/or BlackBerry-like functionality to an iPod could be another hot ticket for Apple sometime in the future.
Typically, the surfaces of portable electronic devices are relatively easy to damage, be it with scratches, dents and the like. Covers, skins or cases have been conventionally utilized to provide protection for the exterior surfaces of portable electronic devices. Accordingly, users protect their portable electronic devices by placing covers or skins around their portable electronic devices.
Additionally, accessories have been utilized to provide additional functionality to portable electronic devices. Typically, accessories are small electrical products that could attach to a portable electronic device, such as through the external connection port. One example of an accessory is an FM receiver provided as a small electrical product that could be attached to a portable electronic device via a cable, which is useful when the portable electronic device does not already include a FM receiver.
The invention reviewed in this report introduces you to a whole new type of device cover that is considered a smart device cover. The smart device cover could include at least one electrical component. For example, in one embodiment, an electrical component could be embedded in the cover. When the cover is placed on or mated with the portable electronic device, the electrical component embedded in the cover is able to interact with electrical circuitry of the portable electronic device. Advantageously, the smart device cover could not only provide a protective and/or ornamental covering for the portable electronic device but could also augment the electrical capabilities of the portable electronic device at the same time. The invention is particularly well suited for handheld, battery-powered electronic devices - though the patent acknowledges the fact that it could apply to other battery-powered electronic devices such as laptops, tablet computers (the iPad), GPS units, remote controls and so forth.
Overview: Smart Device Cover
As a cover for a handheld, battery-powered, electronic device, where the electronic device has a device housing that contains electrical circuitry, one embodiment can, for example, include at least a cover body configured to be placed over a substantial portion of the device housing of the electronic device, and at least one electrical component provided within the cover body. At least one electrical component is able to be electrically connected to the electrical circuitry within the device housing when the cover body is placed over a substantial portion of the device housing of the electronic device.
Electrical Skin: As an integrated electrical skin, one embodiment could, for example, include at least a compliant body including a cavity for receiving an electronic device, and one or more electrical components being at least partially disposed within the compliant body.
A cover for a portable electronic device could be made from a variety of materials. In one particular embodiment, the cover could be formed from a flexible and/or compliant material that is fitted, i.e., conforms to, the contour of the portable electronic device. For example, in one implementation, the cover is a flexible film (e.g., a label) that attaches to a surface of the portable electronic device. In another example, the cover could be a compliant enclosure formed from materials, such as rubber or silicone which can be wrapped and stretched around the surfaces of the portable electronic device. The cover can also be referred to as a skin.
The electronic cover could be configured and act as an electronic accessory to the portable electronic device, i.e., a supplementary system that improves the functional capabilities of the portable electronic device. In most cases, the electronic cover is a distinct element, which is not part of the originally designed portable electronic device. Instead, the electronic cover is an add-on or an accoutrement of the portable electronic device.
Active Elements: Here, the cover or outer covering includes active elements that could interact with active element of a portable electronic device. The cover or outer covering having active elements could be considered a smart cover or active cover. In order to be smart and/or active, the smart or active outer cover generally includes one or more electrical components that are carried by the body or member of the electronic cover. In some cases, the components could be discrete separate components that are spaced apart from one another while still maintaining communications there between (e.g., wires, traces, flexes). In other cases, at least a portion of the components could be grouped together onto a single carrier such as a printed circuit board, flex circuit, rigid flex, subassembly or electronic enclosure. These components may be embedded and/or surface mounted. Several of the components will be described in detail below.
Force Sensors: In one embodiment, a cover is formed from a compliant material such as silicone rubber (silicon rubber). The cover could include one or more force sensors embedded within the cover or applied to an inside surface of the covering. The one or more force sensors could be configured to measure or detect force being applied thereto through deformations in the compliant material of the cover. The area around the force sensor may further include tactile features that help define the location of an input area. The tactile features may, for example, be ridges that surround the border of the sensor.
Solar Grid: In one discussed patent figure not shown, the cover is noted to have an electronic grid internal to the cover. The electronic grid could pertain to various different electronic structures, such as a grid of photovoltaic elements to capture solar energy or a grid of illumination elements (e.g., LEDs). The solar energy could be used to charge a battery or power the portable electronic device. This could be one of the many options being considered.
Protection: The electronic cover may be configured to help protect the portable electronic device (i.e., it may serve as armor or shock protection that helps prevent structural and/or surface damage to the portable electronic device).
Ornamental: Additionally or alternatively, the electronic cover may provide ornamentation to the portable electronic device (i.e., it may help define the overall ornamental appearance of the electronic device). The electronic cover could also permit personalized ornamentation. The electronic cover may also provide tactility in order to improve the feel and grip to the portable electronic device.
Lighting Effects: The illumination elements could also be controlled to produce an ornamental appearance for the cover – like Apple's logo. Yet the illumination devices could also be used to impart different colors to different parts of the cover so as to colorize the cover, display an image, or display light effects. Fiber optics (e.g., fiber optic strands) could also be used within the cover to route light for illumination purposes. The material used for the cover could also be used to diffuse the light produced by the illumination elements. In one embodiment, the electronic grid is completely embedded in the cover.
Illuminated Bezel: In one embodiment, a cover may also include a display bezel disposed around one or more edges of an opening in the cover. The display bezel may include one or more display components, such as LEDs, LCDs and/or other light sources. The display bezel may also include a variety of optical components such as diffusers, light guides, light pipes for distributing light from a light source to the display bezel for illumination thereof. This type of system may be used to extend the feel of a primary display of the portable electronic device. Hmm, this one may be headed for a smart design cover for a future iPad.
As a Case: The electronic cover may also be a flexible covering that includes a cavity for receiving the portable electronic device and that wraps/stretches around some portion of the portable electronic device. The outer covering may be referred to (among others) as a case, shield, container, jacket, vest, skin, protector, and the like of the portable electronic device.
As a Film: The electronic cover may for example be laid, set, wrapped, spread upon, about or over a portion of the portable electronic device. The electronic cover may be configured to cover a surface of the portable electronic device including a portion of a single side, multiple sides, and/or all sides of the portable electronic device. For example, the electronic cover may be a film that is applied to a single surface of the portable electronic device (e.g., a portion or the entire front surface).
The Mechanics of the Smart Device Cover
In patent FIG. 7 we see a perspective diagram showing a portable device cover (700). The portable device cover includes a cover body (702). Besides including a connector (704), the cover body also includes at least one electrical component (706) positioned within the portable device cover. The electrical component may be operatively coupled to the connector so as to allow communications and/or signaling to occur between the electrical component and the portable electronic device when inserted into the portable device cover. This may be accomplished using a variety of techniques including but not limited to wires, traces, flex circuits, rigid flex, circuit boards and/or the like.
In patent FIG. 8 we see that the portable device cover includes a plurality of electrical components (806). It should also be appreciated that although a connector is provided in the embodiments shown in FIGS. 7 and 8, there are alternative ways besides the connector for electrical components within a cover body of a portable device cover to communicate with a portable electronic device provided within the portable device cover. For example, wireless connections may also be used. In some cases, some of the electrical components within the cover body could communicate through a connector while others communicate wirelessly. Alternatively or additionally, the portable device cover may include multiple connectors.
Two Smart Device Cover Examples
Games: In patent FIG. 10A below, we see a top view of a covered portable electronic device (1002) which provides user input devices that could be used to interact with the covered portable electronic device. The cover also includes an opening (1004) which allows a screen (1006) of the portable electronic device (1002) to be exposed. The user input devices being provided by the cover could vary depending upon implementation. The user input devices could include a set of buttons (1008) on one side of the top surface of the cover and another set of buttons (1010) on the opposite side of the top surface of the cover. As an example, Apple's engineers state that "the cover (1002) could serve to provide a game player user interface to the portable electronic device being covered. The top surface of the cover (1002) covers the top surface of the portable electronic device. However, in an alternative embodiment, the top surface of the cover could cover the rear surface of the portable electronic device."
That could mean that the gaming controls could be positioned on the backside of the device cover so as to not limit the iPhone/iPod touch's larger viewable display area. In fact, patent point 136 confirms this by stating that "a cover includes a built-in touch surface on its back surface. In one implementation, the touch surface substantially matches up with a display screen of a portable electronic device on the opposite side." The patent's FIG. 10A would appear to be relating to that of an iPod Classic that is positioned sideways.
Physical Texting Keyboard: In patent FIG. 10B we see a view of a covered portable electronic device (1020) with a cover (1022) which could cover either a top surface or a rear surface of the portable electronic device being covered. The cover includes a keypad region (1024) that provides a plurality of key areas that allow a user of the portable electronic device to enter alphanumeric characters. The cover could also include a display screen (1026). The display screen could be provided by the cover (or by the portable electronic device being covered). The display screen 1026 could display alphanumeric characters that are input using the keypad region.
To make this crystal clear, the patent, under point 126, specifically states that the "keys may be a keyboard such as a QWERTY keyboard. The patent is describing a physical keyboard. The series of keys may also relate to a telephone layout (e.g., numbers, *, #). Also see patent FIG. 16B below for an alternate version of this. For BlackBerry fans, or should I say CrackBerry fans (as they're known as), having this option could be a game breaker.
Add Cell Phone Functionality to an iPod
In one embodiment, a cover could pertain to a cell phone cover. The phone cover is configured to add phone functionality when coupled to a portable electronic device that does not include phone functionality. The portable electronic device may, for example, be a portable media player, such as Apple iPod. The material for the phone cover could be widely varied: it could a compliant, deformable or elastic - and wraps around the portable electronic device. The phone cover may, for example, include an inner cavity that has an inner shape that substantially coincides with the outer shape of the portable electronic device when the phone cover is placed over the portable electronic device. The compliant skin could be formed from a variety of materials. In one embodiment, the phone cover is formed from silicon rubber.
The phone cover could include an opening or transparent window that provides viewable access to a display screen of the portable electronic device. The phone cover may also include an input area that at least designates a keypad region. The keypad region may include a keypad with integrated mechanical or electronic actuators or alternatively it may include visual and/or tactile elements that utilize an input device of the portable electronic device.
In one example, the tactile elements are configured to engage an input device disposed on the portable electronic device. The input device may, for example, be a touch wheel/button found on some iPod devices. The keypad region generally includes number keys and # and * keys found on most phones. The keypad region may also include a talk or enter button. Other phone related buttons such as speaker and mute may also be provided. In one implementation, the keypad is arranged in a matrix or rows and columns. In another implementation, the keypad is arranged around a circle similar to old rotary telephones. The tactile features may be recesses or protrusions. In one example, the tactile features are depressible bumps.
The phone cover may include a connector for interfacing the electrical components within the portable electronic device. The phone cover could also include a built-in speaker and microphone. The speaker typically interfaces with the user's ear while the microphone typically interfaces with a user's mouth. Thus, the speaker is typically placed in an upper portion of the phone cover and the microphone in a lower portion of the cover.
Although not required, the phone cover may also include a proximity detector. The proximity detector may be used to detect when a user places the cover/electronic device up to their face. The phone cover could also include a speaker phone that allows audio data to be externally output. Still further, the phone cover could also include one or more of: a controller, an antenna, a camera, a connector, one or more switches, an opening for a power/hold switch, and an opening for an audio/video jack.
What we're seeing in patent FIG. 16A below is a front view of a cover (1600) for a portable electronic device, that includes an opening (1602) for accessing the display/touch screen of the portable electronic device. We also see an opening (1604) for accessing a button of the portable electronic device. The cover could include a plurality of buttons (1606) that are provided around the opening – which is very much like the iPod Classic's clickwheel. The cover could also include another opening (1608) for access to another feature of the portable electronic device – such as the iPhone's speaker.
In patent FIG. 16B we see a front view of a cover (1650) for a portable electronic device that includes an opening (1652) for access to a display/touch screen of the portable electronic device. The cover could also include a keyboard (1654) having a plurality of keys. The cover is able to transform a portable electronic device without a keyboard to a device that has a keyboard to receive alphanumeric input from a user.
In patent FIG. 17A noted above, we see a diagram of a front surface of another cover which could provide the user with various UI components to adapt the portable electronic device to operate as a mobile telephone. In this example, the cover could include a plurality of buttons (1706) that are provided around the opening. The buttons permit the user to enter inputs to the portable electronic device like a rotary-style phone featuring a tactile feel to denote each button. The cover could also include a speaker (1708) and a microphone (1710).
In patent FIG. 17B we see a diagram of a back surface of the cover (1700) illustrated in FIG. 17A. In this embodiment, the back surface does not include any user interface components. However, in general, the back surface is eligible to include user interface components. In this embodiment, the back surface has various electrical components embedded therein. In particular, as illustrated in FIG. 17B, the cover includes a connector (1716) that facilitates electrical connection of the cover. The camera (1724) provides the cover with image capture capabilities. The one or more electrical conductors (1726) serve to electrically connect the camera with the substrate (1718). The antenna (1728) is coupled to the substrate and serves to support the wireless circuitry (1721) with transmission and reception of wireless signals.
Video Conferencing: In one embodiment, the patent states that "the cover could include a camera (e.g., video camera) on its front surface. The camera may enable video/online conferencing or chatting via a handheld electronic device."
The Apple engineers credited for this patent include Quin Hoellwarth, who was recently credited for Apple's Video Headset Project patent, and Brett Alten, who was credited for a July 2009 patent covering an iPhone Adaptive Navigation System. The patent was originally filed in September 2009.
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