On June 14, 2012, the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that reveals one of their research projects involving a camera device that provides the user with configurable optic options. The unique aspect to this is the device's removable back panel. Although Apple's patent background mentions a mobile phone, their actual summary and patent detailing mention nothing of a phone in any traditional way. So the device could either represent a next generation iPod touch as a means of differentiating it from the iPhone or a standalone camera that Apple has been playing with since 2009. While Apple has toyed with the idea of adding various lenses to handhelds via an external accessory in the past, their concepts were never in-line with Apple's great design ethic. Today's design seems to properly address the need for better portable device optical options while retaining an Apple-like form factor. The only real question remaining is this: Is Apple designing this removable back panel design as part of a standalone camera or as part of the iPod touch's reinvention. Which do you think it'll be?
The Limitation of Today's iDevice Cameras
Digital image capturing devices include cameras, portable handheld electronic devices, and electronic devices. Often these digital image capturing devices are highly compact. They may be integrated as part of a multifunction device such as a personal digital assistant (PDA) or mobile telephone.
A digital imaging subsystem that includes a lens and an image sensor may be provided as a single sub-assembly for building the device so that all components requiring high precision optical alignment are pre-assembled. This permits economy of scale in the production of the digital imaging subsystem, which may be used in many different devices. This also lowers the cost of producing the device that includes the digital imaging subsystem because the assembly process for the device does not have to include the procedures for providing optical alignment of the digital imaging components.
As the quality of digital images that could be obtained with highly compact devices increases, there is increasing demand for sophisticated features previously found only in high-end digital cameras, such as digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. Cameras providing features such as supplementary lenses and filters, optical zoom, optical image stabilization, and other features useful in capturing high quality images have typically been much larger than multifunction devices that include a camera.
High-end digital cameras may be constructed with a camera body that provides a mechanical receptacle for receiving a variety of lenses and aligning them precisely with the image sensor in the camera body. These replaceable lenses and non-replaceable lenses on other digital cameras may provide a lens and filter mount at the front of the lens that could receive a lens or filter that is connected directly to the lens, thus ensuring a precise optical alignment with the lens.
The use of a pre-assembled digital imaging subsystem in a highly compact device precludes the use of replaceable lenses. Further, the lenses in a pre-assembled digital imaging subsystem are much smaller than those found in a dedicated digital camera and they do not provide a mount for filters or additional lenses. The digital imaging subsystem is typically enclosed within the case of the device to protect the digital imaging subsystem. The enclosure generally prevents direct access to the lens of the digital imaging subsystem for the purpose of providing any sort of supplementary optics, especially if the supplementary optics must be precisely aligned with the image sensor.
Therefore it is necessary to offer a number of different models of a compact device if a range of camera features is to be offered. Further, the camera features of a model are limited to what could be provided with a single optical configuration.
It would be desirable to provide a structure for a compact device that allows the end user to reconfigure the optical arrangement of the device while retaining the benefits of assembling the device using a pre-assembled digital imaging subsystem.
Apple's Solution: A Device with a Removable Back Panel with Optical Options
A portable electronic device includes a digital imaging subsystem with a lens having an optical axis. A case encloses and supports the digital imaging subsystem in a first defined positional relationship to the case. A removable panel is coupled to the case and held in a second defined positional relationship to the case that covers the digital imaging subsystem without the removable panel being directly connected to the digital imaging subsystem. An optical component is supported by the removable panel such that the optical component is aligned with the optical axis and alters optical characteristics of the digital imaging subsystem. The device may include a power supply and an electronic control system coupled to the digital imaging subsystem and the power supply enclosed in and supported by the case. Electrical connectors may couple the power supply and the electronic control system to an electrical component on the removable panel.
In Apple's patent FIG. 1 noted above we're able to see is a simplified block diagram of a device with a camera. A case 102 encloses and supports a digital imaging subsystem 104 in a first defined positional relationship to the case.
In Apple's patent FIG. 2 below we see an enlarged portion of the device in the region of the digital imaging subsystem. The digital imaging subsystem includes a lens 106 having an optical axis 108. In Apple's patent FIG. 3 we see the same back panel as in FIG. 1 but Apple provides a little more detail.
Since the digital imaging subsystem and the removable panel 110 are both held by the case in defined positions with respect to the case, the optical component 112 supported by the removable panel is precisely aligned with the optical axis of the lens without the use of a direct connection between the optical component and the digital imaging subsystem. This makes it possible for a user to reconfigure the optics of the device while retaining the benefits of providing the basic image capturing functionality with a pre-assembled digital imaging subsystem.
Removable IR Cut-Off Filter
A near-infrared (IR) light, which spans from 700 nanometers (nm) up to about 1000 nm, is beyond what the human eye can see, but most digital image sensors could detect it and make use of it. Normally an IR-cut filter is used to prevent IR light from reaching the image sensor so that the IR light does not distort the colors of images as the human eye sees them. Rather than include the IR-cut filter in the digital imaging subsystem as is normally done, the IR-cut filter could be supported by the removable panel as the optical component. This permits the IR-cut filter to be removed for capturing black and white images at very low light levels. Without the IR-cut filter the camera's light sensitivity may extend to 0.001 lux or lower.
Removable Close-Up Lens
In another embodiment, Apple states that the optical component supported by the removable panel is a close up lens that reduces the minimum focal distance of the digital imaging subsystem. This permits the camera to be used for extreme close-up photography.
Removable Lens Baffle with Supplementary Lens
In yet another embodiment, Apple states that the optical component supported by the removable panel is a lens baffle that reduces the transmission of extraneous light to the digital imaging subsystem. The lens baffle may be provided in combination with a supplementary lens that increases the focal length of the digital imaging subsystem and reduces the field of view. The lens baffle is closely matched to the reduced field of view so that light that is outside the field of view is not reflected onto the image sensor to degrade the acquired image.
Removal Cover with Stroboscopic Flash & Two Different Optical Components
As is shown in patent FIG. 4 below, the portable electronic device may include a stroboscopic flash 402 supported by the removable panel 410. The electrical component 416 is an interface that couples the stroboscopic flash to control signals from the electronic control system and power from the power supply through an electrical connector 414 that is coupled to a corresponding electrical connector in the case. The removable panel may support an auxiliary power supply 418, such as a capacitor or a battery, to provide additional power for the stroboscopic flash. As shown, some embodiments may use a removable panel that extends from the case over part or the entire panel to provide space for bulky components or to support the optical component at a greater distance from the digital imaging subsystem.
As shown in patent FIG. 5 above, the portable electronic device may provide a removable panel that could be selectively held by the case in either of two defined positional relationship to the case. The removable panel may include two optical components 512, 522 each of which provides different optical characteristics of the digital imaging subsystem according to which of the two optical components is aligned with the optical axis.
Motion Sensor on the Removable Panel
In another embodiment the motion sensor is on the removable panel. In this embodiment, motion sensor signals may be provided to the electronic control system in the case through the connectors. Alternatively, the motion sensor signals may be provided to the electrical component on the removable panel and processed to control the optical image stabilizer without the involvement of the electronic control system in the case.
May Include Better Zoom Capabilities
In yet another embodiment the optical component is an optical zoom assembly that adjusts the focal length of the digital imaging subsystem. The electrical component 116 is an interface that couples the optical zoom assembly to control signals from the electronic control system 122 and power from the power supply 128. The electronic control system receives user input, such as a switch closure or a touch screen gesture, to control the setting of the optical zoom assembly and provides control signals to electrical component to adjust the optical zoom assembly according to the user input.
May Include Better Shutter Control
In still another embodiment the optical component 112 is a mechanical shutter that controls admission of light to the digital imaging subsystem 104. The electrical component 116 is an interface that couples the mechanical shutter to control signals from the electronic control system 122 and power from the power supply 128. The mechanical shutter may provide better control of the exposure of the image acquired by the digital imaging subsystem 104 under certain circumstances such as photographing quickly moving subjects.
Printed Wiring Board
The digital imaging subsystem, power supply, and electronic control system may be assembled to a printed wiring board 124 (PWB) that provides the coupling between these components. The printed wiring board may be fastened to the case and thereby cause the components to the supported by the case.
Apple's patent application was originally filed in Q4 2010 by inventor Richard Tsai who also invented a flash control for electronic rolling shutter. The patent application was published today by the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Another original patent application published today related to Flash Memory. Apple's Patent Application 20120151120 relates to systems and methods for handling non-volatile memory ("NVM") operating at a substantially full capacity. In particular, by providing a logical space for the NVM that is relatively larger than the physical capacity of the NVM, the system's performance could be increased even when the NVM is substantially full.
Other Patent Applications Published Today
Another original patent application published today relates to Flash Memory. Apple's Patent Application 20120151120 relates to systems and methods for handling non-volatile memory ("NVM") operating at a substantially full capacity. In particular, by providing a logical space for the NVM that is relatively larger than the physical capacity of the NVM, the system's performance could be increased even when the NVM is substantially full.
And lastly, US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple titled "Network Status." Apple's patent relates to wireless communications and, more particularly, to devices and systems related to determining a network status within a wireless communication system.
For those interested in this patent, check out patent application 20120149308 which was originally filed in Q4 2010 by inventor Fletcher Rothkopf and published today by the US Patent and Trademark Office.
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In addition to the two patent applications presented in today's report, the US Patent and Trademark Office did publish a series of older continuation patents dating back to between 2004 and 2010. These are referenced in each patent application under the section titled "Cross-Reference to Related Applications." Most of the time continuation patents are about tweaking patent claims in an attempt to get their patents granted and don't represent any noteworthy new development from the original filing date. Here are today's continuation patents should you wish to review them:
This continuation patent relating to the iPhone's camera lens cover was originally filed in 2004 under the title "Light Isolating Protective Cover for Small Form Factor Electronic Device."
This continuation patent relating to the iMac's hinge was original filed in 2005 under the title "Flat Panel Display including a Hinge Assembly."
Patently Apple presents a detailed summary of patent applications with associated graphics 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 full and accurate details.
Revelations found in patent applications shouldn't be interpreted as rumor or fast-tracked according to rumor timetables. Apple's patent applications have provided the Mac community with a clear heads-up on some of the greatest product trends including the iPod, iPhone, iPad, iOS cameras, LED displays, iCloud services and more. About Comments: Patently Apple reserves the right to post, dismiss or edit comments.
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