Three Major Smart Fabric Patents Surfaced today Focusing on Smart Clothing, Wearables & Future Devices
Apple has a few standing patent application in regards to using future smart fabrics for various devices such as a MacBook, Apple Watch band, iMacs, headphones, iPhone and beyond. Today the US Patent & Trademark Office published three new major smart fabric patent applications titled Fabric Sensing Device; 3D Fabric with Embedded Input-Output Devices; and Fabric with Embedded Electrical Components. As noted in our cover graphic, the main patent covers smart fabrics that could be used in next-gen wearables in the form of clothing, purses, bags, pockets and beyond. The fibers can incorporate a woven interface that may include touch-sensitive buttons to activate features of the product. Apple's 3D fabric extends smart fabrics to office furniture, sofas through to car seats, head mounted glasses and event TVs. The last patent covers an Apple TV-like device or Mac Mini having a body covered in a smart fabric that could incorporate smart buttons that are flat to the surface.
While this is something that's likely to be viable in five to ten years out, it's interesting to see the work being done by Apple's engineers today. And with three in-depth patents being filed during the same week in March of this year, it's clear that they have a dedicated team exploring this technology that could apply to future iDevices, wearables, accessories, car seats and a whole universe of products that these smart fabrics could apply to.
Invention #1: Fabric Sensing Device
Traditional electronic devices may include a variety of input devices, including buttons, keys, mice, trackballs, joysticks, and the like. Some traditional electronic devices may include a touch panel or touch screen that is configured to receive a touch input from a user. However, many traditional input devices and touch sensors are formed using rigid materials and/or a rigid substrate sheet and, therefore, may be limited to certain form factors. Therefore, it may be advantageous that input devices be formed from flexible materials that may be more easily adapted for use in a variety of applications.
Apple's latest fabric related invention relates to touch-sensitive devices and, more specifically, a textile-based touch-sensitive device.
In some embodiments, the touch-sensitive textile device includes a first set of conductive threads oriented along a first direction, and a second set of conductive threads interwoven with the first set of conductive threads and oriented along a second direction.
The device may also include a sensing circuit that is operatively coupled to the first and second set of conductive threads. The sensing circuit may be configured to apply a drive signal to the first and second set of conductive threads to produce a charge on each of the first and second set of conductive threads. The sensing circuit may also be configured to detect a variation in charge or on any one of the first and second set of conductive threads.
In general, it may be advantageous to implement touch-sensitive functionality using a broad range of materials that can be integrated into a number of flexible and versatile form factors. In some implementations, a touch-sensitive textile may be incorporated into a consumer electronic product, including for example, a wearable electronic device. For example, the touch-sensitive textile may be incorporated into a portion of the band or lanyard that is used to secure the device to the body of a user.
A touch-sensitive textile may also be incorporated into an article of clothing such as a shirt, jacket, glove, or other textile-based garment. For example, a touch-sensitive textile may be incorporated into a sleeve, pocket, or other portion of a garment that is readily accessible to the use.
In some embodiments, a touch-sensitive textile may be incorporated into an accessory, including, for example, a purse, wallet, handbag, backpack, and or other accessory having including textile element. A touch-sensitive textile may also be incorporated into an item that is not worn, including, for example, a cloth, rug, tapestry, upholstery, or other fabric-based article or component.
The touch-sensitive textile may be incorporated or integrated with other electronic components or electronic circuitry to form a touch-sensitive textile device. In some implementations, a touch-sensitive textile device may be configured to recognize a touch gesture or gestures on a surface of the textile. The touch gesture(s) may include a sweep or movement of the user's finger across the surface of the textile that may be interpreted as a command or other user input. In some implementations, the touch-sensitive textile device may be configured to detect and measure the force of a touch on the textile, which may be used to interpret additional user inputs and/or commands. The touch-sensitive textile device may also be incorporated into or configured to interface with an electronic device to provide user input to programs or instructions being executed on the electronic device.
Apple's patent FIG. 1 noted above depicts an example system of devices including a touch-sensitive textile device; FIGS. 2A-B depict an example self-capacitive touch-sensitive textile device; FIGS. 4A-B noted below depict an example two-layer resistive touch-sensitive textile device in accordance with some embodiments; and FIGS. 5A-B depict an example two-layer capacitive touch-sensitive textile device in accordance with some embodiments.
Apple's patent application 20170249033 was filed back in Q1 2017onsidering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.
Invention #2: 3D Fabric with Embedded Input-Output Devices
In Apple's second fabric invention published today they introduce us to three-dimensional fabric with embedded input-output devices.
Electrical components may be incorporated into the fabric to form input-output devices such as switches and other devices. The fabric may form part of an electronic device such as a cellular telephone, tablet computer, watch, or other stand-alone electronic device, may form part of a case, cover, or other fabric-based electronic device of the type that may serve as an accessory for a stand-alone electronic device, or may be formed as part of an embedded system or other fabric-based item.
An electronic device that contains fabric may be an accessory for a cellular telephone, tablet computer, wrist-watch device, laptop computer, or other electronic equipment. For example, the electronic device may be a removable external case for stand-alone electronic equipment, may be a strap, may be a wrist band or head band, may be a removable cover for a device, may be a case or bag that has straps or that has other structures to receive and carry electronic equipment and other items, may be a necklace or arm band, may be a wallet, sleeve, pocket, or other structure into which electronic equipment or other items may be inserted, may be part of a chair, sofa, or other seating, may be part of an item of clothing, or may be any other suitable fabric-based item.
If desired, the fabric may be used in forming part of an electronic device such as a laptop computer, a computer monitor containing an embedded computer, a tablet computer, a cellular telephone, a media player, or other handheld or portable electronic device, a smaller device such as a wrist-watch device, a pendant device, a headphone or earpiece device, a device embedded in eyeglasses or other equipment worn on a user's head, or other wearable or miniature device, a television, a computer display that does not contain an embedded computer, a gaming device, a navigation device, an embedded system such as a system in which fabric-based equipment is mounted in a kiosk, in an automobile or other vehicle, equipment that implements the functionality of two or more of these devices, or other electronic equipment.
The fabric in which one or more input-output devices has been incorporated may form all or part of an electronic device, may form all or part of a housing wall for an electronic device, may form internal structures in an electronic device, or may form other fabric-based structures. The fabric-based device may be soft (e.g., the device may have a fabric surface that yields to a light touch), may have a rigid feel (e.g., the surface of the device may be formed from a stiff fabric), may be coarse, may be smooth, may have ribs or other patterned textures, and/or may be formed as part of a device that has portions formed from non-fabric structures of plastic, metal, glass, crystalline materials, ceramics, or other materials.
Input-output devices may include switches, buttons, joysticks, scrolling wheels, touch pads, key pads, keyboards, microphones, speakers, tone generators, vibrators, cameras, sensors such as touch sensors, capacitive proximity sensors, light-based proximity sensors, ambient light sensors, compasses, gyroscopes, accelerometers, moisture sensors, force sensors, light-emitting diodes and other status indicators, data ports, displays, and other input-output devices.
In patent FIG. 4 noted above we're able to see a top view of fabric #24 in a configuration in which three input-output devices (#18) have been incorporated into fabric. As an example, the input-output devices may be buttons that are open and closed in response to user button presses and/or switches that serve as sensors to determine whether force is being exerted on a portion of the fabric.
As shown in FIG. 5, the fabric that includes embedded components #46 for forming switches for buttons or force sensors and other input-output devices may be processed using additional tools and assembly equipment. For example, the fabric may be attached to housing structures formed from plastic, metal, glass, or other materials using adhesive, fasteners, or other attachment techniques, the fabric may be sewn, cut, and otherwise incorporated into fabric-based items, the fabric may be formed into structures with cavities that are filled with foam, circuitry, and other items, and the input-output devices, circuitry and/or other structures may be assembled with the fabric to form a finished fabric-based item or electronic device.
And lastly in patent FIG. 6 we're able to see a cross-sectional side view of an illustrative portion of a smart fabric into which components 46A and 46B have been incorporated to form an input-output device )#18.
In the example of FIG. 6, fabric has fibers such as fibers 24A and 24B. Fibers 24A may be warp fibers and fibers 24B may be weft fibers (or vice versa). Fibers 24A and 24B may be woven into a three-dimensional fabric (as an example).
Apple's patent application 20170247820 was filed in Q1 2017.
Invention #3: Fabric with Embedded Electrical Components
In Apple's third smart fabric invention we learn about fabric with embedded electrical components. Fabric can be provided with metal wires and other conductive fibers. These fibers can be used to carry signals for electrical components. An electronic device can be formed from a fabric that contains electrical components.
In the illustrative configuration of FIG. 1 noted above we're able to see a device (#10) like an Apple TV box that has portions formed from fabric such as upper face 12-1 and sidewalls 12-2. Electrical components #20 have been mounted to fibers within the fabric. Openings in the fabric may, if desired, be used to accommodate components such as buttons #22, button #16, and connector #18 or components such as components #16, #18, and #22 may be omitted.
Apple's patent claims put a lot of emphasis on the fabric comprising of woven weft and warp fibers.
Apple's patent application 20170251555 was filed in Q1 2017.
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