Apple seems to be onto something new of late. They've been exploring the implementation of the smart port into future hardware. It will eliminate the current printed port icons that are on hardware today, such as for Firewire or Thunderbolt in favor of introducing "invisible-like" icons that are created by using micro-perforation techniques. The reason for doing this serves two purposes. The first is to once again refine Apple's hardware aesthetics and the second is to add the ability to introduce active or morphing port icons. These new morphing icons would be able to communicate both the location of a port and/or any danger associated with it.
The Smart Port Project is Gathering Momentum
Apple's R&D teams are conducting some fascinating research into the development of smart ports. Their teams are driven by Apple's fanatical reputation for original device detailing and elite aesthetics. You can tell when a project has been given the green light at Apple by the number of patents that begin to roll out over short periods of time.
In respect to smart ports, we began to see this research surface in a January patent that we covered under "Apple Dreams up a New User Friendly Connector System." In that report we covered Apple's exploration into simplified connectivity via technologies such as magnetic field sensing, LED sensing, audible indicators, vibrations via haptics and more.
Then in February a secondary patent surfaced discussing smart ports and we covered it under our report titled "Apple Talks up Smart Bezels + Live & Reconfigurable MacBooks." In that report we learned more about RFID tags and the use of micro-perforations relating to the reconfigurable metallic MacBook surface which could morph from a keyboard to gamepad. These micro-perforations were further discussed in a patent that we covered just last week under the title "Apple Considers Adding Invisible iTune Controls to MacBook Lid." And so leading up to today's patent there's been a lot of ground work covered by Apple's various engineering teams that demonstrate that this project is now gathering momentum at Apple.
Hardware that Monitors Your Eye Movement
In today's patent we begin with Apple pointing to a future desktop or notebook being able to assist a user in finding the right port to insert a cable into by simply monitoring their eyes. This was first described in Apple's January patent covering a friendly connector system which uses a tiny built-in camera in the hardware to monitor the user's eyes and movements. This works in conjunction with the use of a proximity sensor that could sense when a user's hands are proximal to a port.
RFID Tags and Skin Sensors
In fact, the patent even goes beyond sensing just hand movement and crosses into territory that discusses that Apple is working on sensors that could actually detect when "human skin" is approaching the port section of your future hardware. Hmm, these sensors are getting a little too smart and beginning to creep-me-out – Yikes!
The use of RFID tag technology is obviously a key technology in this project, as Apple once again discusses it in this patent regarding the smart port. Additionally, the patent discusses the use of micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) accelerometers that could be used to measure the movement of a cable in one or more axes, including tilt and rotation. Furthermore, Apple is exploring the use of vibration detectors, a magnetic compass and/ or a gyroscope, all in an effort to better interpret the user's movement when nearing a port in order to provide assistance in connecting or disconnecting a cable.
In another embodiment, according to Apple's patent, an accessory could broadcast an identification code that could indicate what type of port it could connect to. When the accessory comes within range of an electronic device, a proximity sensor could receive this code and determine that the user is attempting to connect the accessory. The identification code can be communicated using, for example, a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system or any other wireless communications system.
In response to determining that a port event is occurring, one or more icons could be selectively adjusted. For example, when a user is attempting to connect or disconnect an accessory to or from an electronic device, an icon could be adjusted to draw the user's attention to the appropriate port for the accessory. This adjustment could assist the user in locating a port and thereby save the user time.
Icons could be selectively adjusted in a manner that changes the appearance of the icons. For example, icons can be adjusted by varying the amount of illumination or the color of illumination (red, green, blue). Icons could be cyclically adjusted so that the same adjustment may be repeated multiple times (e.g., an icon can blink on and off).
New Morphing Icons
This segment of the patent is truly the heart of this particular patent. Just as with Apple's reconfigurable MacBook patent, Apple is considering the use of micro-perforation in hardware to conceal port icons until they're required to be seen by the user. When not in use, there are no pre-printed icons to be found. Why do this? Well one of the reasons, according to Apple, is that icons could now indicate status going well beyond the statically printed icon. So now it's not just the smart port but the smart icons that will accompany this system.
In the combination patent graphic below, you'll see a series of possible icons that could be lit by LEDs. Then at the bottom of that graphic you'll notice that there are three distinct examples of how a standard icon could morph. The icon will morph into a new configuration by adding an extension of itself so as to communicate something new to the user, be it an activity or danger that they should be aware of.
In one embodiment noted at the bottom left of the patent graphic above, icon 24 could be adjusted by changing its shape with the addition of icon portion 31 to convey status information about an associated headphone port. For example, when the associated headphone port is not outputting any signals, both icon 24 and icon portion 31 may be unilluminated. This mode could indicate to a user that the associated port is currently inactive. However, if the associated headphone port is outputting signals with a volume below a predetermined threshold, for example, icon 24 may be illuminated and icon portion 31 may be unilluminated. This mode could indicate to a user that the associated port is outputting audio signals. Finally, if the associated headphone port is outputting signals with a volume above a predetermined threshold, for example, both icon 24 and icon portion 31 may be illuminated. This mode could indicate to a user that the volume of the signals from the associated port may be dangerously high and the user may want to be careful when plugging in (or putting on) headphones. To further enhance the effect of this warning, icon portion 31 may be illuminated in a red color and/or blinking to convey the potential danger.
In another embodiment, the shape of icons can be adjusted to indicate when a particular port or function is disabled or inactive. For example, as shown in FIG. 3B, icon portion 32 could be used to indicate when an Ethernet port associated with icon 26 is disabled. In addition to or as an alternative to changing shape, an icon can change colors or become unilluminated to further indicate that an associated port is disabled.
In yet another embodiment, an icon's shape could be changed to indicate the direction that data is being transmitted through a port associated with the icon. For example, as shown in patent FIG. 3C, icon 27 could be associated with a video port in an electronic device and icon portions 33 and 34 could be used to indicate the flow of data through that video port. If the video port is enabled and connected to a video cable, icon 27 may be illuminated and icon portion 33 or icon portion 34 may also be illuminated to indicate which direction video data is being transmitted. For example, if data is being transmitted into the associated video port, icon portion 34 may be illuminated, and if data is being transmitted out of the associated video port, icon portion 33 may be illuminated.
And lastly, Apple notes that icon 28 noted above is an example of an icon that may be integral to the associated port. For example, icon 28 may involve illuminating rim 281 that surrounds the associated port. Icon 29 is another example of an icon that may be integral to the associated port. In this embodiment, icon 29 may involve illuminating a light source (not shown) inside of the associated port such that the associated port emits light from aperture 292 that is also used to receive a connector. In icon 29, rim 291 that surrounds the associated port may also be illuminated.
Other Noteworthy Patent Applications Published Today
New Cooling Fan: For hardware techies, there's a patent out today regarding their centrifugal blower with non-uniform blade spacing. The technical specs of the patent could be found under patent 20110052385. The Graphic appears to be very close to the fan found in iFixit's teardown of the new MacBook Air. Apple's patent claim 11 states that the fan is associated with a laptop. Technically this would be a patent fulfilled.
Security Patent: For security buffs, there are three new patents to explore. In our February patent report covering Apple's future Cloud Based Security Box, we also covered a secondary security patent titled "Sponge and Hash Functions using a Rubik's Cube Puzzle Process." Today, Apple is shown to researching yet differing processes under patents 20110055581, 20110055582 and 20110055576 which cover a Domino Game Process, a Painting Technique Process and Heap Modeling Process. That should keep the hackers busy for a while.
For information on any of the patents mentioned above, simply feed the patent numbers into this search engine.
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. Patents shouldn't be digested as rumors or fast-tracked according to rumor time tables. Apple patents represent true research that could lead to future products and should be understood in that light. About Comments: Patently Apple reserves the right to post, dismiss or edit comments.