On February 17, 2011, the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that reveals the next chapters for both their iPad and MacBook portable devices. Apple first discussed future plans regarding a smart bezel for their iPad and iPod touch a year ago while hinting at new hovering capabilities just last week. The idea is to give Apple's iPad bezel easy yet invisible controls. In today's patent application, Apple really spells out how the smart bezel may not require a Home Button and added controls like volume will simply require a swipe of your finger. If that wasn't enough, Apple kicks everything up a notch by talking about a Live and Reconfigurable touch interface for future MacBooks. This has a lot of potential if Apple's haptic technology advances accordingly. It's the device every OEM on the planet is trying to master and it sure looks like Apple is getting a whole lot closer than most. Go Apple!
The Smart Bezel System
Certain embodiments may take the form of housings for electronic devices with integrated I/O and related methods. For example, in one embodiment, an electronic device includes a housing configured to function as an integrated housing and I/O device and one or more sensors obscured by a wall of the housing. The one or more sensors may be configured to sense inputs, such as through a touch or via the wall of the housing. The electronic device further includes a processing unit communicatively coupled to the one or more sensors and configured to interpret electrical signals generated by the one or more sensors. One or more output devices may be communicatively coupled to the processing unit and configured to provide an output in response to the one or more sensors generating an electrical signal.
Another embodiment takes the form of an electronic device housing having a wall with at least one exposed surface and an interior surface. One or more sensors are positioned within the housing and proximate to the wall's interior surface in order to sense user interactions with the exposed surface and generate electrical signals based on the interactions. A controller is communicatively coupled to the one or more sensors and may interpret the electrical signals as an electronic device input. The controller may also generate an output signal. Additionally, at least one output device is positioned within the housing and communicatively coupled to the controller to receive the output signal. In response to receiving the output signal, the at least one output device provides output via the housing.
Introducing the Housing User Interface
In Apple's patent FIG. 1 we see a simplified block diagram of a housing I/O interface (200) having a housing wall (202). As shown, the housing wall defines an outer surface (204), which may help form an exterior portion of an electronic device, and an inner surface (206), which may help form an interior portion of the electronic device.
In Apple's patent FIG. 2 we see an illustration of a simplified block diagram of an electronic device implementing the housing I/O interface of FIG. 1. The information obtained from the one or more sensors of the input element may be used to perform actions in the electronic device (214). Thus, the sensor and housing may be referred to as a housing user interface or housing input device.
As should be appreciated, user actions such as approaching (proximity), touching, tapping, holding, squeezing relative to the housing may be used by the electronic device to perform actions. Additionally, when combined together, these user actions can provide different levels of user input. For example, proximity may initiate a first user input, touching may initiate a second user input, and squeezing may initiate a third user input. Of course, sensor inputs may be combined to form a single input (e.g., proximity+touch=first signal, touch+squeeze=second signal, holding+orientation=third signal, etc.).
Invention Applies to iPad, MacBook, Television & Home Appliances
According to Apple's patent, the housing user interface or I/O interface may be implemented in a variety of electronic devices including, but not limited to, portable computing devices, cell phones, televisions, personal computers, smart phones, personal digital assistants, media players, appliances such as refrigerators, microwave ovens, etc. and any other suitable electronic device. As such, although the description included herein may include some specific embodiments and may be related to particular functions, it should be understood that the housing I/O interface may be implemented in a wide variety of devices and may perform a variety of functions beyond the embodiments specifically described herein.
Apple's admission that this technology will extend to the other household appliances and/or applications will be better understood in the coming weeks ahead in one of our special reports.
A Smart iPad Bezel with No Home Button Envisioned
In Apple's patent FIG. 12A below we see an illustrated tablet and/or future iPad, with a housing/bezel (152) that contains a number of sensors/actuators (154). In particular, for example, in one embodiment the housing may include touch sensors, pressure sensors, light emitters, and/or haptic actuators, etc. represented by the sensors/actuators and accelerometers.
Similar to embodiments described above, the housing of the tablet may be configured to provide input and output. In patent FIG. 12B we see a cross-sectional view of the tablet showing apertures 156 through an external wall of the housing. The apertures are microperforations in the housing so as to allow for output such as light to pass through the housing. The microperforations may be formed in accordance with known techniques. The microperforations are generally imperceptible to a naked eye. Thus, the surface of the housing does not appear to be an input/out device. This particular concept of Apple's has been discussed in a number of other patents (One, Two and Three).
Touch the iPad Bezel to Adjust Speakers or Display Brightness
In one example, the volume outputted by the device's speakers of the device and/or the brightness of the display may be adjusted by touching or applying pressure to the housing. In one embodiment, the amount of pressure may be determinative as to how the volume will be adjusted. For example, a pressure threshold may be provided above which the volume will be adjusted up and below which the volume may be adjusted down.
In other embodiments, the volume may be adjusted by determining a movement upward or downward on the surface and adjusting the volume accordingly, i.e., adjusting up for a sensed upward movement.
Double Tap the Bezel to Turn the iPad On or Off
In January, BGR reported that they had received word that a future iPad would drop the Home Button. Well, this patent seems to support that position. According to the patent, the sensed input may be used to unlock or awake the tablet from a sleep mode. For example, if the tablet is locked or asleep, upon determining a user handling the tablet through sensing touch or pressure being applied to particular parts of the housing and/or movement of the tablet, an application or start-up routine may be launched that requires certain input to unlock or otherwise bring the tablet to a fully functional state. The patent also states a double tap to the lower edge of the tablet's housing could be used to turn it on and/or off.
A Smarter MacBook Embodiment
Apple's patent FIG. 4 illustrates a conceptual future MacBook that will incorporate the Housing User Interface.
In addition to the I/O devices that are externally visible to a user on the MacBook, such as the iSight camera and microphone, the MacBook's housing may have one or more sensors and/or actuators that are located within the housing (and hidden from view) that provide I/O functionality to the housing.
Housing I/O is thus achieved. That is the housing 12 of the device is capable of functioning as an input and/or output device independent of conventional input/output devices. In housing I/O, the housing doesn't appear to be an input/output device but, rather, simply appears to be the housing. There are no breaks in the housing to provide for I/O and the surface of the housing used for I/O in housing I/O is continuous and of the same material as other portions of housing that may not provide any I/O functionality.
In one embodiment, there may be sensors and actuators lining the perimeter of the lower and upper portions (22) and (26) of the housing, as illustrated by the dashed lines. The sensors and actuators may be located near and/or coupled to the interior surface of the housing, thus facilitating a user's access to the housing I/O functionality. For example, the sensors and actuators may be located under the surface of the housing partially containing the keyboard and trackpad.
The Illuminating MacBook
As shown in Apple's patent FIG. 8A below, when there's no object detected as being near the MacBook Ports 24, there is no output/feedback provided to a user and the surface of the housing appears to be a non-functional wall, as there are no breaks in the housing surface for input or output devices.
In response to sensing the user input, i.e., an object approaching the ports, the proximity sensors (66) may generate a signal. The strength of the signal generated by the sensor may be used to determine the distance of an object from the ports. Upon sensing an object near the ports, the processor may generate an output signal to light sources (not shown) so that icons (97) may be illuminated or may otherwise appear on a top surface of the housing to indicate the location and types of ports that are located on the side of the housing, as shown in FIG. 8B.
Connectors with Built-In RFID (or NFC) Tags
The next feature was first introduced in our January report covering a new user friendly connector system that primarily pointed to devices like the Mac mini and/or iMac. In today's patent, Apple extends the technology to future MacBooks.
Turning to FIGS. 9A and 9B, an alternative embodiment is illustrated wherein a USB connector (112) may be configured to identify itself to the system as it approaches a port or a bank of ports. Specifically, in one embodiment, the connector may be equipped with a radio frequency identification ("RFID") tag 114. The RFID tag may be active or passive. In MacBook may poll for RF input, such as input received from the RFID tag on the connector.
One or more icons or lights may be illuminated to indicate a corresponding and/or available port. In one embodiment, only the icon representing a corresponding port is illuminated, as indicated in FIG. 9B. Additionally or alternatively, the port may be identified on the display of the device, e.g., "USB." Additionally or alternatively, the device may provide an audible output indicating the port type. For example, the device may verbally state "USB" or may simply provide a beep or other audible signal to indicate a particular port.
Apple states that the name of the port may be provided on the surface in conjunction with the port symbol or instead of the symbols.
In yet another embodiment, the icons may be controlled by a "set up assistant" software or other software related setting up the computer or connecting a device. The set up assistant software may be used to guide a user when setting up a computer for the first time. For example, when the computer is first started up (i.e., turned on for the first time by a user), the set up assistant may ask for a mouse and/or keyboard to be connected and may illuminate the appropriate port icons, such as the USB icons, for example.
Apple Introduces us to the "Live" MacBookSurface
Apple's patent lists a great number of sensors that could be implemented in the smart MacBook embodiment including added touch sensor beyond the traditional touchpad including proximity sensors, pressure sensors and haptics.
And then Apple surprises us with a new concept that they simply refer to as the "Live Surface" in context with what sounds like a virtual keyboard. In fact, as you'll read below, the configurable surface would support that. The keyboard is in an outline mode in Apple's patent figure which means that it may not be a fixed keyboard, at all.
The patent states that in one embodiment, the light sources may illuminate to indicate a keyboard configuration. For example, in one embodiment, the light sources may illuminate to show a QWERTY keyboard configuration. Additionally, in some embodiments, the haptic device may begin to vibrate at a low amplitude. The vibration creates a "live" surface, thereby providing a different tactile effect to users touching the vibrating surface 122 as compared to a surface that is not vibrating. You'll be able to control the haptics to your comfort zone.
Apple Introduces us to the "Configurable" MacBook Surface
In yet another alternative embodiment, Apple states that a user may configure surface 122 to be a custom configuration. The MacBook system 120 may be configured to operate in an operating mode and a configuration mode. The MacBook may be placed in a configuration mode by initiation of configuration software, actuation of a hardware or software switch, or any other suitable manner. Once in the configuration mode, a user may define portions of the MacBook's surface to provide specified input. For example, the configuration mode may provide an application in which a user could manipulate how touching or applying pressure to certain areas of the surface are interpreted.
In one embodiment, while in the configuration mode, a user's finger may touch the surface 122 to select a particular portion of the surface that has been defined to provide a particular input (for example, the user may touch a region of the surface that has been defined to function as a number pad). The user may then drag the finger across the surface to a desired location on surface 122 and remove the finger. The surface then reconfigures such that the region in which the finger was removed from surface 122 has been redefined to provide input signals of the location that the finger originally touched, i.e., the number pad.
In another example, the user may move the controls for volume to a desired location on the surface. In another embodiment, the application may simulate surface 122 on the display 14. The simulated surface may provide a map of the current surface configuration and the user may manipulate the simulated surface to re-configure how input from the surface 122is interpreted by the MacBook.
Once the user has reconfigured surface 122, the configuration may be saved in memory of the MacBook. In another example, Apple points to an OLED based light source underneath the surface of the MacBook that would show a reconfigured image in a new location. In another example, an image on a main computer display may show a surface map with indication of where the new number pad is located on surface 122.
The good news is that Apple has been secretly working on this for years. Their research began, in fact, as far back as 2005/2006 timeframe.
Apple credits Aleksandar Pance, Nicholas King, Duncan Kerr and Brett Bilbrey as the inventors of patent application 20110038114, originally filed in Q3 2009.
And There's More to this Story
Also see Parts two and three of this Report which covers more details about the keyboard-less notebook in additon to providing you with information about all new hand-wave and acoustic based controls for future notebooks and/or tablets. And lastly, you'll also see a peek at a possible new LED based UI for an iPod that borrows from the principles of this patent e.g. using micro-perforations in the iPods embodiment. The new UI variable isn't that of the traditional Clickwheel, so check out part two for more on this.
Other Noteworthy Patent Applications Published Today
The USPTO has published Apple's second patent regarding a magnetic connector with an optical signal path. We initially covered Apple's patent on December 2, 2010 in great detail. Today's patent add little.
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