On January 31, 2013, the US Patent & Trademark Office published twenty patent applications from Apple and the most intriguing of all relates to their invention concerning a new depth perception system. While Apple has worked on "presence detection systems" before relating to MacBooks and iDevices, this new system goes beyond mere detection. For instance, in one application, Apple describes the new system integrated into an iPad that would be able to project a laser based keyboard onto a table. That would definitely be considered a wow-feature that could excite consumers. Of course, that's if they actually get it to market before the completion steals their idea, which is highly likely.
Apple's Patent Background
Depth sensing is an estimate or determination of the depth of an object as viewed from another object or a person. Most current devices that include a depth sensing function may require complicated and expensive sensors, which may in turn require complicated algorithms in order to process data collected by the sensors. However, depth or distance determination may be useful for many devices. For example, cameras may produce better images based on depth data of an object, as a lens of the camera may better focus on an object when the object's depth is known.
Some cameras may include an auto focusing feature. The auto focus feature may be able to determine by approximation or iteration the approximate distance of an object in order to focus a lens on an object. For example, the auto focus may sample different images or sensor readings and with each sample, the auto focus may adjust accordingly until the proper focus is achieved. Other auto focus techniques may include transmitting a sound wave or an infrared signal. For either of these wave methods, the camera transmits a wave and then captures or monitors the wave. The camera may then determine the values of the reflected wavelength and determine the distance the object is from the camera. For example, the time difference between the time that an infrared light wave pulse is produced and when it is received back after reflection allows the camera to estimate the distance to the object.
A New Depth Perception System
Apple's patent relates to a system for determining a distance to an object. The system includes a first image capturing device, which may include a lens and an image sensor. The system also includes a first laser source. The first laser source is configured to emit a fan shaped laser beam to intersect at least a portion of a field of view of the image capturing device.
Apple's patent covers the use of a depth perception system on future computers and mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad. They system may include a processor and a camera which may be in communication with the processor. Additionally, the electronic device includes a first laser source configured to emit a first fan shaped laser beam to intersect at least a portion of a field of view (FOV) of the camera.
Yet other examples of the disclosure may include a depth detection device. The device may include a lens and an image sensor configured to capture an image of light transmitted through the lens. The device may also include a laser source configured to emit a laser beam trackable by the lens and having a width that increases in dimensions away from the laser source.
A Future iMac with Integrated Depth Perception System
In Apple's patent FIG. 12 noted below we see an example of a future iMac with a new depth perception system integrated into it. In this example, the iMac is able to detect a user approaching it and activate a particular program, application, awake from sleep or power save mode, and the like. In this example, the iMac is incorporated with the system shown as a side view in patent FIG. 8 below. In this manner, the iMac includes an iSight camera and the first laser source 204a and the second laser source 204b positioned underneath the display screen. In this manner, the beams 206a, 206b may include different angles, so as to be able to project onto an object or user positioned at a various heights and/or angles.
In patent FIG. 12, we see a user positioned in front of this future iMac such that the first and second beams 206a, 206b may at least partially intersect the user. The iMac's updated iSight Camera will be able to determine the distance that the user is from iMac. The depth perception system increases the sensitivity of user detection for the iMac so that it could make a distinction between the user and an occupied chair. As one beam 206a is angled upwards it may be positioned to be higher than a chair. In this manner the system may be able to detect when a user approaches, as both beams 206a, 206b will be projected off an object.
About the Laser Source
According to Apple, the laser source may be substantially any type of device configured to produce a light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (laser) beam or other coherent directional beam of light. The laser source may include an active laser material (e.g., ruby, helium-neon, argon, semiconductor), a source of excitation energy (e.g. electricity, optical energy), and a resonator or feedback mechanism (e.g., a mirror).
For example, the laser source may be a gas laser that may discharge gas to amply light coherently, a solid-state laser, a semiconductor or diode laser, a photonic crystal laser, and so on. Furthermore, the laser source may be configured to emit light having substantially any range of wavelengths. For example, the laser beams noted in patent FIGS. 8 and 12 above may be visible, infrared, near infrared, medium wavelength infrared, long wavelength infrared, or far infrared. The beam may be able to be captured or otherwise determined by a sensor. The laser source may be configured to emit the beam as a particular shape (e.g., fan-shaped) or may include a filter or cap including an aperture in order to direct the beam 106 into the desired shape (triangle, circle etc).
In an alternate design, Apple's patent FIG. 7 shown below presents us with a top view of a second embodiment of the system for determining depth. In this embodiment, the system may include an array of image capturing devices 202a, 202b and 202c. The laser source may project the beam so as to at least partially intersect a portion of a FOV 208a, 208b, 208c of each image capturing device 202a, 202b, 202c. In this embodiment, the total FOV for the system may be increased. In one example, the total FOV for the system may be approximately 180.degree.
Apple iPad with Laser Projected Keyboard
In Apple's patent FIG. 11A shown below, we see the depth perception system incorporated into a mobile electronic device such as an iPad. In this example, the system may be used in combination with a projected control panel 115 (such as a keyboard, audio/video controls, and so on). The control panel 115 may be a light pattern projected from a light source onto a surface (e.g., table or desk), the control panel 115 may include different light shapes, colors, or the like for representing different inputs.
The system may determine the selection of a particular button or input of the control panel by determining the depth of a user's finger, a stylus, or other input mechanism. The depth of the object may then be compared to a distance of each key or button of the control panel 115. Additionally, the system may provide for an enhanced projected control panel 115, which may allow for mobile electronic devices to decrease in size as a keyboard, or other input mechanism may be able to be projected larger than the mobile electronic device.
Remember, this could also apply to Apple's iPhone as well which would indicate that there would be some kind of associated smart cover or built-in stand so that the projected keyboard could function properly onto a surface. Apple's Smart Cover for the iPad may suffice or Apple could introduce a built-in kickstand as their September 2012 patent suggests.
Apple notes that their invention could apply to other devices such as an iPhone, iPad, MacBook or an auto focus camera wherein the system may determine the depth of an object and the lens may then be automatically adjusted to focus on that depth. Apple also foresees this new depth perception system applying to automobiles (e.g., virtual locks, stereo controls, etc.), digital video recorders, security systems and more.
Apple credits David Gere as the sole inventor of this patent application which was originally filed under serial number 193561 in Q3 2011. David was also credited for another patent that we covered in March 2012 titled "Apple Invents a Killer 3D Imaging Camera for iOS Devices." Here's another related patent on this subject that we posted in November titled "Apple Advances their Multi-Level Presence Sensing System."
A Word about Today's Continuation Patents
On another note, itt should be noted that the US Patent and Trademark Office did in fact publish a series of older continuation patents today dating back to between 2008 and 2011. The continuation patents listed below are specifically referenced as such under the section titled "Cross-Reference to Related Applications." Generally speaking, this type of patent application contains modifications that Apple's legal team have made to the original patent claims in an effort to have the US Patent Office finally approve their invention. In general continuation patents don't represent any new developments from the original patent filing. Some websites mistakenly report on continuation patents as if they were new Apple filings to which they are not. Here are the older continuation patents that were published today by the US Patent Office:
2. 2010 Patent titled "Printed Circuit Board Radio Frequency Shielding Structures"
3. 2008 Patent titled "Methods and Systems for Wireless Networks with Relays
4. 2010 Patent titled "MAC Packet Data Unit Construction for Wireless System"
5. 2010 Patent titled "Relaying System and Method with Partner Relays and Selective Transmission."
6. 2009 Patent titled "Peer-to-Peer N-Way Synching in a Decentralized Environment"
7. While not officially a continuation patent, Apple's published patent application titled "Touch Screen Device, Method, and Graphical User Interface for Moving On-Screen Objects Without Using a Cursor" is an invention that incorporates multiple Apple patent filings dating back to between the years 2003 and 2008. Click here to review this older yet key invention.
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