What is it about tablets that gets the masses all worked up? I don't know. Yet what I do know is that with Apple's forthcoming tablet sporting high-end accelerometers, GPS and Google Maps, I don't think that any of us will be going around in circles in the desert for 40 years trying to find the Promised Land. "Apple - Reinvents the Tablet," the headlines will read the day after Steve Jobs holds up the tablet to the shouting masses who will be pleased with the sacrifice Apple has made. Others will begin to smelt golden copies of the anointed tablet – but none shall prevail. Yet until that day arrives, the masses are starving for some real news about the coming tablet. What will it offer, pray tell. In part one of this short two part series titled The Tablet Prophecies, we'll first take a look back at some rather interesting tablet-specific applications that Apple has been working on to make their first tablet unique. Then in part two we'll take a look back at some great tablet-specific hardware features that Apple has revealed to us in various patents over the years. Who knows, perhaps some of the coolest applications and hardware features you'll read about this week will actually debut on Apple's' first iteration of the tablet next week. For now, let's dig right into Apple's Tablet Prophecies and find out what we could be in store for.
In part one of this two part series we'll look at some of the features that Apple could market the tablet with in light of the various modes that Apple has revealed to us through their tablet-specific patents. For instance, Apple has revealed a series of ebook modes that point to various ways that we may end up reading books, magazines and/or newspapers in. In fact a lot of detail has been cataloged concerning this area of development. Which of the modes Apple will debut next week is anyone's guess, but there's room for growth here over the coming years - being that we'll eventually see a duo-display based tablet-set mirror paper based books.
Additionally, Apple points to a two handed virtual keyboard, numerous virtual controls, floating menus, a new way to interact with their iTunes Store and even introduces us to an all new GarageBand application that may debut with the tablet or be reserved as part of an iLife suite upgrade in time for Christmas 2010.
More importantly, perhaps for many, is that Apple's tablet also gets down to business. On paper at least, it appears that the tablet will run word processing and spreadsheet applications and in some recent patents, Apple has shown us that they're still thinking of ways of reinventing, or at least reintroducing, the stylus for Apple's tablet. And though the jury is still out on that contentious point, you can't fight the fact that Apple's engineers are still working on this project according to a number of recent patents. Time will tell on that one, but for now, let's dig right in and cut to the chase.
Welcome to Morphing Virtual Controls & Modes
One of the most important aspects of a leading Apple patent presents us with the fact that the tablet could have morphing virtual controls that presents the user with multi-modes. The patent states that "the user interface mode may be widely varied. The user interface mode may include navigation modes, scroll modes, data entry modes, edit modes, control modes, information modes, display modes, etc."
According to Apple, each mode will typically have one or more GUI interface elements associated therewith. By way of example, a virtual scroll wheel or slider bar may be associated with a scroll mode; a keyboard or keypad may be associated with data entry mode; a tool bar such as a formatting tool bar or drawing tool bar may be associated with an edit mode; a control panel including buttons may be associated with a control mode; a window may be associated with an information mode – and so on and so forth.
The range of applications for Apple's upcoming tablet appear to have no boundaries being that it will run the Mac OS. To make sure that you get this point, the patent lists various examples of applications it will be able to run, with many in plural form: Spreadsheet programs, image editing programs, drawing programs, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, word processing programs and so forth. Regardless of the debate over which OS the tablet will actually operate, the larger point is that the tablet will run more standard applications which will make this as much a working tool as it could be a recreational gadget.
Yet let it be said that if OSX could run on a razor thin MacBook Air – there's really no technical reason why it couldn't be earmarked for a future version of an Apple tablet. In fact, Apple has made this very point themselves in a 2008 patent concerning a hybrid notebook/tablet. That particular patent was really about touch technologies that just happened to demonstrate the hybrid product as one earmarked device.
Any naysayer could check out patent 20080168384 under patent point 0145 as follows: "FIGS. 33A-C show another example of a device according to at least certain embodiments of the disclosure. FIG. 33A illustrates a laptop device with a keyboard, a body, a display frame, and a display. The laptop device can be converted into a tablet device as illustrated in FIG. 33B and FIG. 33C. FIG. 33B illustrates the conversion of the laptop device into a tablet device."
New Floating, Reader Controls
According to one particular touch patent of Apple's, the tablet will be able to recognize your thumb (likely by means of biometrics) and open up a floating control as shown in both FIG. 17D and 19C above. The floating control could be set up to display menus, icons, buttons, scroll bars and so forth to give users control over launching a program or gaining access to a network and so forth. The user could also create custom groups. For example, a floating control could be set up for iTunes and the controls that you think that you'll use most often like, raise of lower volume, call up playlists, next-tune etc. For apps, you could set it up to open mail, iPhoto, iMovie, Safari etc.
This is going to be very cool. You'll have minimal toolbar garbage in your face while still being able to access the controls that you deem important: You have to love it.
As an eBook Reader: Page Turning
Apple's patent FIGS. 21A and 21B noted above, clearly illustrate Apple's futuristic touch tablet used here as an e-book or ibook reader. The side-by-side patent figures clearly show us that a page-turning gesture at the bottom of the tablet is turning the page from 1 to 2. You'll be able to whisk through pages in either direction as required.
On that point I'd rather see a one-tap option or a corner-page swipe that looks more like your actually turning a physiical page. That would be cool and different from the way you go to a next page on your iPhone or iPod touch today. But if you're hoping for something a little more radical, then perhaps the next mode will grab your attention.
Tablet with New Back Panel Touch Zone Controls
Apple's patent figures 14 and 15 noted below are from another touch patent titled "Hand held electronic device with multiple touch sensing devices." It is here in this 2006 patent where Apple spells some minor yet interesting details of a coming two handed tablet. Although the shape of the tablet may be widely varied, such a device is typically "page sized," according to the patent. "By way of example," the patent states, "the tablet PC may have a height of about 12 inches, a width of about 8.5 inches and a thickness of about 1 inch (or less)."
"It should be emphasized that page sized is not as transportable as pocket sized. However, by being page sized the device can include increased functionality that is not capable in smaller devices," notes the patent.
It should also be noted that the thickness detailed in the 2006 patent is likely to be irrelevant being that Apple has since developed the MacBook Air - proving the likely thickness for their upcoming tablet. According to Apple's own marketing, "the thinness of MacBook Air is stirring. But even more impressive, there’s a full-size, fully capable notebook encased in the 0.16 to 0.76 inch of sleek, sturdy anodized aluminum." How much slimmer could the Apple Tablet get? Time will tell.
In Apple's patent FIG. 14, you'll notice three areas outlined as patent points 144. These areas could carry touch-areas or zones on the back of the panel where users' hands will typically be while reading or playing a game. In these areas the user's fingers may be tapped, pressed, or slid across the touch surface in order to generate inputs.
While the patent doesn't provide any specifics for what kind of controls could be employed here, we can assume that there could be a page-flip control, a cursor control and perhaps a light adjustment for day to evening reading etc. For gamers, we could only hope that superior gaming controls are on the way. The iPod touch or iPhone are fine for simple pastime games, but it sure would be great to have better controls for higher-end video games. A little more information on video games will be revealed in part two of this series.
Virtual Dials, Click-Wheels & Keyboard Controls
Apple's patent figure 6A above introduces us to a rotation gesture as it relates to a virtual dial. Consider this dial to be that of a volume control, for instance. Apple notes that such virtual controls will also be matched with audible or tactile feedback (as is currently used in some iPod touch/iPhone applications today). Optional virtual controls will be available, especially to developers - so that they could incorporate sliders, buttons and/or switches and the like into their applications. I'm sure in order to get the creative juices going for their developers, Apple's first tablet iteration will be chalk full of neat virtual controls to play with. You'll see new ones below in relation to iTunes.
Apple's iWork: Pages App with Virtual Keyboard
Apple's Pages, a word processing application that is part of Apple's iWork suite appears to be one of the applications being prepared for a future tablet. Apple's patent FIG. 24 noted above is a diagram of a GUI operational method 700 which is configured for simulating a keyboard. The touch screen is positioned over or in front of the display. By way of example, the display may be an LCD and the touch screen may be a multipoint touch screen. As shown in FIG. 25B, a user positions their fingers 576 over the multipoint touch screen 520 over the keyboard 730 to enter data into a word processing program.
The patent figure makes it clear that this is a two handed keyboard and not just a texting keyboard that comes with Apple's iPhone or iPod touch. It should also be noted that while Apple used alien hands for their illustration, word is that humans will be able to work the keyboard as well - Ha!
Controlling iTunes on a Tablet
Apple's new tablet is shown in the patent to operate with new virtual controls that will be displayed automatically as part of a program. They could also be displayed when a particular gesture is performed. By way of example, during the operation of a music program such as iTunes, the virtual scroll wheel may only appear on the GUI when two fingers are placed on the touch screen as opposed to one finger - which is typically used for tracking in iTunes today.
Further, as shown in FIG. 38G, the user may add another finger to the current touch thereby initiating a change from the first control panel 966 to a second control panel 982. The first control panel 966 may include a first set of control options such as play, stop, seek and volume options and the second control panel may include a second set of control options such as song playing order, song information and/or light effect options.
In addition, multiple GUI elements could be activated in the same portion. For example, as shown above in FIG. 38J (at the top left), if the user selects a particular box in the playlist 964, a keyboard 992 may be activated so that the user could enter data associated with the song (e.g., title, artist, genre, etc.). If the scroll wheel 962 is active at the same time as the keyboard, then the scroll wheel may be minimized to accommodate the keyboard as shown. Once the keyboard is deactivated, the scroll wheel reverts back to its original size.
The virtual keyboard will also be used to type in your iTunes Store account information, enabling you to make purchases.
Advanced Video and Sound Editing
Apple's patent FIG. 21D illustrated below shows other additional touch sensitive UI elements that could be added to a new video editing application. For instance, slide bar UI element 796 could be added to detect gestural inputs for invoking level adjustments, such as pan adjustment or brightness, contrast, hue, gamma, etc. types of adjustments.
User Interface (UI) element 795 noted above, could also be displayed within the video application to effect sound editing of the video. Specifically, the UI element could include a plurality of level adjustments for recording or playback of different channels of sounds or music to be mixed with the video.
Uniquely, the patent states that the user will not only be able to customize which UI elements are to be displayed on the interface but also program the UI elements to perform desired functions.
DJ App: A Dual Virtual Turntable Mixer
With Apple's new Hip Hop DJ app coming to the tablet – you're going to be the hit of the party! Apple's patent FIG. 23 noted above illustrates an embodiment of the invention that relates to manipulating the replay and recording of audio or musical files. This new app and/or feature is likely earmarked for Apple's GarageBand in their iLife suite. According to the patent, the music application could display a pair of virtual turntables 844 and 845, on which two musical records 834 and 835 are playing. The noted records could be one of a single or a LP record. The records could be graphical representations of a digital musical file (e.g., song A and song B) that are being replayed via the music application. In other words, the records could be graphical imprints of the musical files as if the musical files were imprinted on physical records.
Like a pair of physical turntables, stylus 844 and stylus 855 could be graphical icon indications of a playback queue, the position of which could be varied by touching the queue on a touch sensitive display screen and dragging the icon to the desired position on the graphical record. The moving of the stylus would cause a jump in the playback point of the corresponding song, as on a physical turntable.
Also like a pair of physical turn tables start/stop buttons 838 and 839 could be touched by one or more fingers to toggle the start or stop/pause of the song reproduction.
Speed variant bars 840 and 841 could be linearly adjusted to control the playback speed of the songs. Windows 831 and 833 could graphically reproduce the frequency representation of the reproduced songs, while window 832 could display the frequency representation of the actual output of the music application 832, which could be simply one of the songs being reproduced, or a mixed/combination of the songs. Mixing/pan bar 850 can be manipulated to modulate or demodulate the two songs being reproduced.
During song reproduction, the records 834 and 835 could be manipulated similar to a physical record. For instance, rapid back and forth movement of a record can cause the sound effect of a record "scratching," as disc jockeys often do on physical turn tables. Sounds like it could be a real winner at parties.
Update - November 18, 2010: Does this look familiar? Who copied who here (ha!)?
Must the Fun End?
In part one of this two part series we've taken a peek back at a few core Apple based tablet patents that were published during the 2006-2008 timeline; Patents that provided us with some intriguing insights into some of the new software ideas and mechanics that were invented in Apple labs. The focus was on new functionality being devised while sharing a few new application ideas that are likely to come to market.
Must the fun end? Of course not, and in part two we'll explore a couple of very interesting if not cool hardware features earmarked for a future Apple tablet. In additon, we'll take a look at couple of new twists to the tablet OS functionality worth noting, as well. In fact, one feature is so off-the-charts, you wonder if they'll ever get it out of their labs. And yes, it relates to the tablet.
So stay tuned for part two coming this week. Until that time, Patently Apple has opened a new Tablet section for you to check out and we'll keep it up to date as new tablet related patents come to light.
Notice: Patently Apple presents only a brief summary of patents with associated graphic(s) for journalistic news purposes as each such patent application and/or grant is revealed by the U.S. Patent & Trade Office. Readers are cautioned that the full text of any patent application and/or grant should be read in its entirety for further details. Some of the following patents that are discussed in this report or miniseries: 20060026535, EP1721236, WO 2005/093550 A2, 20080165141, 20060197750 and 20060026536.