Apple definitely has their eye on the corporate world as a new patent application published by the US Patent and Trademark Office today reveals that they've invented a new and more convenient way to sign electronic documents. Many professions and governmental agencies have to deal with signing legal documents every day and Apple's new methodology may be the magic bullet in making this process convenient for electronic forms. Apple has also created several security measures that will appeal to both corporate and consumer markets alike. Whether Apple plans to keep this technical methodology for their new signature application alone or try to make it an industry standard is unknown at this time.
Today's Hassles of Signing E-Documents
Some electronic devices could be used to enter data in documents displayed by the device. For example, a device could display a document provided by an electronic document file, such as a portable document format ("PDF") file document or a word processing file document that may include one or more text fields in which text could be entered. In particular, a user could select a particular field, and a provide text input information using an input interface of the device. Text corresponding to the text input information could be displayed in a text field of the document, and saved or printed as part of the document file.
Some documents, however, must be signed by a user. For example, government-issued or legal documents could require a signature before being filed. When such documents are created or filled-in on an electronic device, a user may not have a simple mechanism for including a signature in the document. Instead, a user may be forced to print a physical hardcopy of the document, sign the printed document, and transmit the signed physical document to a receiving party (e.g., by mail, facsimile, or by scanning the signed physical document and e-mailing the scanned document). This approach could be time consuming and burdensome for a user.
Apple's E-Document Signature Solution
Apple's invention covers systems, methods, and computer-readable media for capturing a signature and placing a representation of the captured signature in a document.
Apple states that an electronic device could display a document having several fields, including a field in which a user could provide a signature. Apple's patent FIGS. 1 and 8 shown below illustrate an electronic form having a signature field where a user could place a representation of their signature.
Because a signature can't be provided using key strokes from a MacBook or iMac keyboard, a user can write a signature on a piece of paper or other object of the user's environment, and place the signature in front of a camera for capturing an image of the signature. Apple's patent FIG. 2 illustrates this using a MacBook Pro.
According to Apple, any idevice or Mac with a camera will be able to process the captured image to create a digital representation of the captured signature that may then be used in the electronic document.
The electronic device could identify light regions in a captured image, and define a boundary for the signature based on the light regions. The electronic device could then apply a raster-to-vector process to portions of the image within the boundary to create a vector representation of the signature. The raster-to-vector process could result in a representation of the signature that may include the outline of the user's signature strokes (e.g., pen or pencil strokes), any changes in line thickness of the strokes, velocity of the strokes, and other attributes of the signature.
A New App for Signatures
According to Apple, a suitable interface will be provided to assist a user in positioning a signature relative to a camera. For example, in Apple's patent FIG. 3 presented below we see a new app designed to capture an image of a signature. An appropriate Apple device will be able to call up this new signature based app that will include a window (#310) that may correspond to an image captured by a camera, and preview region (#320) that will provide a preview of a digital representation of a signature captured in the image of window.
Apple states that a user will be able to store any suitable number of representations of signatures. For example, a user will be able to store a signature with or without a middle name or middle initial, or a signature that includes the user's initials or one or more symbols.
Apples patent FIG. 6 is part of the new application for signatures. Display 600 of could include window 602 in which several representations of signatures could be displayed. The signature representations could correspond to different manners in which a user may sign documents, or could correspond to signatures provided by different users. For example, representations 610 and 612 could correspond to signatures provided by two different users, while representation 614 could correspond to the initials of one of the users.
The representations could be provided in any suitable order including, for example, in an order corresponding to when they were created (e.g., representation 614 is the newest representation, and representation 610 is the oldest representation). A user will be able to set a particular representation of window 602 as a default signature, or can delete one or more representations from the window.
How the App Will Work
Apple describing how the new signature app will work states that to place a representation of a signature in a displayed document, an application providing the document could include a menu in which a signature could be selected. Apple's patent FIG. 7 noted above is an illustrative display of a menu overlaid on a document for providing a signature in the document. The menu overlay is in effect over the signature area presented in the electronic form shown in patent FIG. 1.
The display could include document 702 over which menu 710 could be overlaid. The menu could include listing 711 of representations 712 and 714 could, in some cases, correspond to the representations of display 600 of FIG. 6. A user can select a particular signature representation by moving selection region 720 over listing 711. A currently selected or a default representation could be identified by marker 722.
Once a user has selected the particular signature representation that they want to display in the electronic form, the electronic device could identify a specific document field in which to display the signature by a click of a mouse or tap on a touch based device. The line in the Signature Preview window shown in patent figure 3 will match the line below the signature to the line of the electronic form for proper alignment.
Automatically Placing Signatures
The electronic device can identify any suitable field of the document in which to place a signature. In some cases, the electronic device could automatically identify one or more horizontal lines depicting bottom boundaries for fields in which a signature could be placed.
Once a line on which a representation of a captured signature may be placed has been identified, the electronic device could display the representation of the captured signature on the identified line using the reference line technique noted below in patent FIG. 4.
Apple's patent FIG. 4 is a schematic representation of an illustrative approach that may be used to identify a boundary box for a signature. Captured image 400 could include signature 402 that may be virtually positioned on reference line 404.
The electronic device could re-size the representation such that the representation may fit on the line. For example, the electronic device could match the length of the representation with the length of the line, and may adjust the height of the representation such that the aspect ratio of the representation could be maintained.
If the height of the adjusted representation is larger than a threshold, the height of the representation may be restricted to the threshold, and the length of the representation could be adjusted to maintain the aspect ratio of the signature.
Signature Security Measures
Apple states that the representation of the signature could be encrypted and stored such that only an authorized user, using an authorized application could access the representation of the captured signature.
A representation of a signature could be stored using different approaches. In some cases, the signature representation may not be stored on disk and will be designed to vanish when the application used to create the signature (e.g., a PDF viewer or editor) quits. This could provide security to a user of the electronic device, as unauthorized users may not be able to retrieve the user's stored signature once the application has quit.
Alternatively, a generated signature representation could be encrypted, as it could constitute sensitive information. The decryption key required for decrypting the signature representation could be stored in OS X or iOS for example, as part of a keychain. In some cases, a signature representation could be encoded such that only specific authorized applications could use a decryption key to decrypt a stored representation. For example, only the application used to create the signature representation or an application used to populate documents requiring a signature could be enabled to decrypt an encrypted representation of a signature.
Child Proofing Security Measures
In some cases, representations of signatures could be associated with specific users or with specific accounts of an electronic device. In particular, in a device having several user accounts, a user could limit access to a representation of a signature to the user's account, for example to prevent a child from using his account to sign a permission slip using a representation of a parent's signature that is associated with the parent's account. Alternatively, a user could allow the signature to be used from other user accounts of the device.
Patent Credits and Closing Thoughts
Apple's patent application was originally filed in Q4 2010 by the sole inventor Matthew Sarnoff.
While there's always a danger for official signature representations to be stolen by hackers – the benefits of creating sophisticated signature designs for electronic documents has its benefits as well. At the end of the day, it may be Apple's way of getting around having to use a stylus for creating signatures. On the fly, the next generation stylus may still hold an edge over Apple's solution. Yet if Apple makes the signature process convenient and includes built-in security as outlined, then they just might win corporate America over. The good news is that Apple has already released a version of this application in OS X Lion last year. Check out this report from Mac Life to see the features noted in our patent report.
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