Patently Apple was first to discover an Apple patent filing in Europe back in 2015 regarding a futuristic home automation system and more specifically a system that could control lighting, climate-control thermostats, window blind controls, entertainment system controls and more. Apple's invention is technically for a control apparatus, including an optical subsystem, a depth map scanner and a projection system. The application is simple. When a user walks into their family room, for example, the wall would be void of switches. When setting up the 'room control unit' as illustrated below, the projector will be set to project room controls to a set position of a wall. When the user touches a certain vicinity of the wall it acts as a virtual control pad and sets off the projector. The projector will then beam temporary virtual controls onto the wall to control devices in the room from lights, to air conditioning and entertainment systems. When the user is finished with the controls, a wave of the user's hand would close the projector, leaving the wall without any sign of switches or controls.
Patently Apple posted a report on this patent filing back in October 2015. Apple was granted a U.S. patent for this invention back on August 30, 2016. The invention was inherited by Apple when they acquired the Israeli firm PrimeSense. Apple could have just kept the invention on file if they had no interest in pursuing that technology. The good news is that the PrimeSense team now working in an Apple facility in Israel is continuing to work on this system.
The foundation of the granted patent remains the same. The changes in the system are restricted to the all-important patent claims section of the new patent filing which defines the technology that a company/Apple wishes to protect. The difference between the two sets of claims is that Apple has extended the claims from 12 claims to 18. Secondly, Apple emphasizes the use of an optical scanner and infrared which is not presented in the original claims.
For instance claim one now states that "Control apparatus, comprising: a first light source, which is configured to emit a first beam of infrared light; a second light source, which is configured to emit a second beam of visible light; an optical scanner, which is configured to scan both the first and second beams over a scene that includes a hand of a user in proximity to a wall of a room; a detector, which is configured to receive the infrared light that is reflected from the scene; and a processor, which is configured to control the second light source so as to project an image of a control device onto the wall, and to generate, responsively to the infrared light received by the detector, a depth map of the scene, to process the depth map so as to detect a proximity of the hand to the wall in a location of the projected image, and to control electrical equipment in the room responsively to the proximity.
In claim six, Apple references infrared again by stating that "The apparatus according to claim 1, wherein the first light source is configured to emit the infrared light as a train of pulses, and the detector is configured to detect a time of flight of the pulses that are reflected from the scene, and wherein the processor is configured to generate the depth map based on time-of-flight data received from the optical subsystem." Apple continues to add 'infrared' references to claims 9, 10, 15, 16 and 18.
The good news is that Apple filed their new patent claims this past June proving that the home automation project is still alive and well under Apple. Whether Apple will license this technology or will work directly with companies specializing in selling sophisticated home automation systems to home builders is unknown at this time.
Apple patent application 20160291801 titled "Flexible Room Controls" was filed on June 14, 2016. You could review the new patent claims in full here.
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