One of Apple's newly published patents today is about detecting a plug placed in an electronic device without physically contacting the plug. What's the significance of such a technology? Well, with devices being designed ever smaller and devices like an iWatch being considered, the traditional design for plug detection isn't going to work. Apple's patent discusses their new solution which paves the way for next generation wearable devices and more.
Many electronic devices provide functionality via accessories coupled to the electronic devices using a plug. For example, media players can include a jack into which an audio plug can be inserted to provide audio from the device to a speaker or headphone connected to the jack. As another example, laptop and desktop computers can include USB ports for receiving USB accessories such as input mechanisms (e.g., a keyboard and mouse), peripheral devices (e.g., a printer), storage media (e.g., external hard or solid state drives), or any other suitable accessory providing additional functionality to the device.
To provide the additional functionality, an electronic device may first detect the accessory device plug inserted into an appropriate aperture of the device and enable a state associated with the detected accessory device. One typical manner to detect a plug is to provide spring arms or other components in the device aperture that are placed in physical contact with the plug upon insertion of the plug. For example, an audio jack can include two or more conductive spring arms operative to create an electrically conductive connection with an inserted plug. A circuit can then detect that the two or more conductive spring arms have been shorted to determine that a plug was inserted in the device.
As the size of devices is reduced, however, space may not be available to provide spring arms or components for physically contacting a plug. Alternatively, the spring arms or components can limit the overall size of the electronic device. In addition, the physical contact of between the spring arms or other components and the plug can be a source of failure (e.g., fatigue failure after a particular number of plug insertion-removal cycles).
Contactless Plug Detect Mechanisms
Standard Contacts: In some devices, an audio plug is detected in an audio jack using spring arms or contacts that come into contact with a portion of the audio plug. Apple's patent FIG. 1 is a cross-sectional view of an illustrative audio plug placed in an audio jack and detected using contacts.
Contactless - Capacitive Sensor: To remove the space required by arms 104 and 106, other approaches can be used to detect a plug. In Apple's patent FIG. 2 noted above we see a cross-sectional view of an illustrative plug placed in a port and detected using a capacitive sensor in accordance with one embodiment of the invention.
Contactless - Inductive Sensor: In Apple's patent FIG. 3 noted above we see a cross-sectional view of an illustrative plug placed in a port and detected using an inductive sensor in accordance with one embodiment of the invention.
Contactless – Optical Sensor: In Apple's patent FIG. 4 noted below we see a cross-sectional view of an illustrative plug placed in a port and detected using an optical sensor in accordance with one embodiment of the invention.
In some embodiments, the electronic device could detect the insertion or removal of a plug in a port using sensors that are not directly connected or related to the plug, but have other primary uses in the electronic device. In particular, the electronic device could include one or more sensors operative to detect particular attributes of the plug insertion or removal process (e.g., detect events caused by the plug insertion or removal). For example, a plug could include several contact regions operative to contact corresponding port regions and form electrically conductive paths between the plug and the port. Using the electrically conductive paths, the electronic device and accessory device associated with plug could transfer data or power in the course of the operation of each device. As the contact regions of the plug come into physical contact with the corresponding port regions, one or more detectable events can occur. For example, the physical contact between contact regions of the plug and port could generate a distinguishable vibration or motion detectable by an accelerometer of the device. As another example, the physical contact can generate one or more audible and distinguishable sounds or sequence of sounds detectable by a microphone of the electronic device.
Example of Miniaturization: The iWatch
In March of this year, Apple hired a new Senior Prototype Engineer by the name of Richard DeVaul, to work on wearable computers. This would likely include a Head Mounted System and perhaps even a new digital watch or iWatch from Apple. Such a device was rumored earlier this month via Taiwan's Apple.Pro web site which was first reported on by MacRumors. Interestingly, the Taiwanese site was forced to remove the photos they had posted which you could see below.
Apple's patent pending Contactless Plugs using one of the sensors noted in this report could be used in devices as noted above.
Apple credits Stephen Lynch, Fletcher Rothkopf; Fletcher and Gordon Cameron as the inventors of Patent Application 20100182159 originally filed in Q1 2009.
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