The race is on. The next wave of tablet computers, smartphones and wrist watches will not only have multitouch interfaces but also multitouch embodiments. A new patent that has surfaced from a mysterious Apple competitor shows us how they're working on devices that will incorporate electrostatic touch sensors right into a device casing to give users access to UI features quicker and easier. Will Apple's competitors get the leap on them or will they have a response inkind in the not-too-distant future? If you want to take a peek at one of the next crazes in smart devices, then you've come to the right place.
An Interesting yet Competing Foreign Patent Arises
Recently I stumbled upon a new patent application from a possible future competitor of Apple's. The invention was devised by two Japanese engineers yet the patent carried no known assignee. Is this a secret patent from a well known competitor – or is it just two dreamers hoping to sell their invention to the highest bidder? I don't know the answer to that question but I can say that their patent is worth noting. These engineers point to Apple's iPhone specifically, and then describe how to create a better device by using electrostatic touch sensors. That was enough to catch my eye and this report will present you with some of the finer points of this patent – and perhaps better yet, point to how this could play out for Apple.
The point that first caught my eye was the patent's reference to Apple's iPhone: "Recently, information processing apparatuses as represented by iPhone (registered trademark of Apple Inc.) in which a user can perform a gesture operation for a touch panel by using a multiple touch method have been widely used."
Later on in their summary they note that "in order to implement a gesture operation of a multiple touch type, the area of a screen of a touch panel may need to be equal to or greater than a predetermined area. For example, for an information processing apparatus that has a characteristic shape and has a small area of the screen like an information processing apparatus of a wrist-watch type, it is difficult to implement a gesture operation of the multiple touch type on the touch panel. In other words, in order to implement a gesture operation on a touch panel, there may be some limitations on the area of the screen of the touch panel or the shape of the information processing apparatus. Thus, there is a need for implementing a gesture operation without depending on a touch panel."
Although Apple has already foiled their notion that gestures on a small watch-like interface is too difficult to implement, the fact remains that being able to add touch to the surface of the device itself, beyond the user interface, is likely one of the next waves for smart devices. I highly doubt that Apple will miss out on this wave, but you could never tell with Mr. Jobs. Yet the silver lining to all of this perhaps, is the fact that Apple already has a patent or two up their sleeve on this front – and so there's hope yet.
Electrostatic Sensors uses on Device Surfaces
In Patent FIG. 1 of this mysterious patent, we see a perspective view showing an external configuration example of a mobile terminal apparatus. Around the sides of the device we see electrostatic touch sensors noted as patent points 21-1 to 4. Patent FIG. 2 is a diagram illustrating a detection technique of an electrostatic touch sensor for a touch panel that is used in an electrostatic touch panel.
Patent FIGS. 3A and 3B are diagrams illustrating an example of a gesture operation for the side face of the mobile terminal apparatus 11 and an interaction process corresponding to the gesture operation.
Apple's iPod nano is about the same size of the device shown in our patent figure 3. Apple's iPod nano uses two fingers to tilt the image on the display. In the patent figure noted above, we see the movement of the user's finger on the right side of the device move from 3A to 3B. By simply swiping the side sensor from the top of the device to the bottom – the picture of the dog is shown to tilt. While this is a single example of how electrostatic touch sensors could work, we see in the patent figure below that there are numerous touch combinations that are being considered.
Device Schematic + Right and Wrong uses of Gesturing
In patent FIG. 4 above we see a block diagram illustrating an internal configuration example of the mobile terminal apparatus (shown in FIG. 1). In patent FIGS. 6A and 6B as well as 7A and 7B, the engineers explain how the sensors won't acknowledge simple hand grips as actual instructions. The sensors are only set to recognize distinct gliding gesturers and combination of gestures as illustrated in patent figures 8A through to 8F in addition to figures 9A, C and E.
An important question would be, could electrostatic touch sensors work with materials like aluminum that is found in the iPad? The answer is yes it can and they detail this in patent figures 10A and 10B below. On this point, the patent states the following: "On the side face of the mobile terminal apparatus 12, conductive materials 41a to 41d are formed of aluminum having a curved shape along the side face (curved face). In addition, the conductive materials 41a to 41d are combined with the side electrostatic touch sensors 21a to 21d." The patent goes on to confirm that "the side face of the information processing apparatus according to the embodiment can be formed in an arbitrary shape." That of course would also apply to the iPad's slightly curved back panel.
Combine the information above with the patent figure 11 shown below and we see that a tablet device like the iPad is all but a done deal. Technically speaking, electrostatic sensors could work with a future iteration of the iPad. In fact, Apple has already won a patent for such a combination and eventuality. The only mystery remaining is the timing of such a unit.
While Apple's patent never discussed the specific technology behind their conceived "Touch Sensitive Zones" – they did in fact briefly point to various forms of sensing technologies available to them such as capacitive and resistive. We now know that one of the leading technologies that are likely to surface on this front in the coming years will in fact be based on electrostatic touch sensors.
An iPad with Touch Zones Envisioned by Apple
Apple's patent first introduced us to the "two-handed" hand held electronic device using physical touch zones on its backside prior to Apple's launching of the iPad.
One must always remember that a patent is presenting a concept and therefore doesn't have to provide all of the variables of a specific product in mind, or in this case, where or what specific touch zone configuration that Apple is considering.
For instance, Apple could theoretically deliver a unit with left and right side indents to mimic something along the lines of a gamepad – so that users would know where the action buttons are without having to look at them. You'd simply get used to where the indents were for each action. They could also decide to add a slight indent or large touch zone, as noted in the patent figure above, to allow users to conveniently swipe as if turning the page of an iBook without ever moving their hand from the backside. What Apple could do and what they will actually do, of course, are two different things. Suffice to say that Apple acknowledges that adding touch zones to the iPad could have its advantages and explains why they added it to their patent in the first place.
The Race is on!
One of the magical advantages that Apple has over their competitors is that they could masterfully match future iPad form factors to specific software apps that they think could eventually define the future of iPad. Apple's original iLife suite was perfect for the Mac. Apple now has to dig down deep and recreate that magic for the iPad. Yes it's true that Apple currently offers iPad users iBook and iWork apps – and that's fine. But I think there has to be more iPad-only apps in the coming months and years to distinguish the iPad above all copy-cats.
Yet the point of this report is of course to illustrate that Apple's competitors are hard at work patenting their own next generation tablet products that will use electrostatic touch sensors on the body of the tablet to more conveniently serve the user. Apple was first with such patents and we've shown you one specific to the task at hand.
Apple's creative team lead by VP of Industrial Design Jonny Ive will really have to get their mojo going on this project in order to outwit a new generation of competitors that are quickly narrowing the time to market in copying Apple's every move and even at times getting ahead of the curve by preempting Apple's next moves. Think of Samsung's Galaxy which will offer duo cameras – a feature that Apple should have provided the iPad with on day one. Update: Or, how about Dell's upcoming Inspiron Duo (see video below) that's a very interesting notebook-tablet entry. Apple had a patent on such a notebook-tablet as far back as July 2008. So why is the competition beating Apple to the punch?
So, the race is on – and the next wave of devices will no doubt add some fairly interesting hardware twists in the coming years that may very well include electrostatic sensors. Will Apple deliver on their original vision or will they lag the market again as they did with multitasking on iOS devices? The excuse of "we're late because we're going to do it better" marketing-twist isn't always going to be swallowed.
Apple's competitors stood on the sidelines for years as Apple bashed their heads in with every new generation of iPod that came to market. They stood by like a deer in headlights. That was then and this is now and Apple's competitors will never be caught sleeping at the wheel again. Apple will have to move like the wind to stay ahead of the pack on tablets – and they might just pull it off.
Yet the remaining question of the day is, will Apple try to take the lead in integrating electrostatic style touch sensors into future iOS devices or will they chicken out and play the role of copycat? While that's a little hard to conceive at present, Apple no longer has the luxury of standing alone in a category unchallenged.
It was Chrysler's CEO Lee Iacocca who coined the famous sales phrase "Lead, follow or get out of the way." But times have changed and that line has been drastically simplified to – "Move quickly or get run over." Today, Apple is no doubt the leader. Let's hope it stays that way for many years to come.
Notice: Patently Apple presents only a brief summary of patents with associated graphic(s) for journalistic news purposes as each such patent application is revealed by the U.S. Patent & Trade Office. Readers are cautioned that the full text of any patent application should be read in its entirety for further details. About Comments: Patently Apple reserves the right to post, dismiss or edit comments. For more information on this competing patent, see application 20100287470.