Apple Looks to Flexible Displays for Unique Functionality
Yesterday the World IP Organization published a host of unique patents relating to flexible displays. Once you hear the words "flexible displays" your mind immediately conjures up all kinds of contorted smartphone designs because that's what the competition, like Samsung, have been promoting for some time now at tradeshows. And being a hardware centric company, you expect that from them. Yet Apple is a different cat. They're the guys who Think Different, remember? So while the competition is stuck in hardware overdrive, Apple is working diligently at finding unique ways to exploit flexible displays. That's really what yesterday's patents revealed once you got through the camouflage of concave and convex display detailing. Our report shows you a few of the little gems that came to light.
A Peek at Apple's Flexible Display Projects
Unique Device Speakers
Apple's invention relates to flexible displays that may include one or more flexible layers. A display cover such as a cover glass layer may be mounted over a flexible display.
The flexible display may be OLED having a flexible substrate formed from one or more sheets of polymer. The flexible display may include a touch sensor layer having an array of capacitive touch sensor electrodes.
There may be one or more display-based speaker structures in the electronic device. The display-based speaker structures may be mounted under the flexible display. Portions of the flexible display may be used as speaker membranes for the display-based speaker structures.
The flexible display may have an active area that is configured to display images to the user. Speaker membranes may be formed from the active portion of the flexible display. The display-based speaker structures may be driven by transducers that receive and electrical audio signal input from circuitry in the electronic device. Piezoelectric transducers or transducers formed from coils and magnets may be used to drive the display-based speaker structures.
A Stiffening structure may be used to stiffen a portion of a flexible display that is used as a speaker membrane. The stiffening structure may be formed from a layer of foam interposed between sheets of stiffening material. The stiffening structure may form a stiff and lightweight support structure that allows the speaker membrane to respond accurately to the transducer.
A suspension structure may be used to attach a display-based speaker structure to surrounding housing structures. The suspension may form a pliant interface between the speaker structure and the surrounding housing structures. The suspension structure may allow the speaker structure to vibrate during speaker operation while inhibiting lateral motion of the speaker structure.
Speaker structures may be configured to achieve a desired frequency response. The electronic device housing in which the speaker structure is mounted may be provided with an acoustic port to tune the speaker frequency response. The type of transducer that is used in a speaker may be selected to tune speaker frequency response. The size and placement of internal device components that affect speaker volume and speaker mass may also be selected to tune speaker frequency response.
An electronic device may be provided with an array of display-based speaker structures. The speaker membrane for each speaker structure may be stiffened with an associated stiffening structure. Each stiffened speaker membrane that is configured to absorb lateral vibrations and thus prevent interference between neighboring speakers.
The figures below illustrate a MacBook, iMac and iPad with one or more speaker structures. Patent Figure 31 is an illustrative electronic device such as a cellular telephone having a display and one or more speaker structures.
One or more holes such as holes or "speaker openings" 464 may be formed in cover layer 462 so that sound my pass from speaker 448 to the exterior of the device.
Apple's patent entertains the use of 2, 3 or 4 speakers built into the flex displays depending on the size of the display. In fact in one embodiment, Apple discusses speaker types that may be used in apparently larger devices such as the iMac or TV as noted above in patent figure 33. The sophistication may involve subwoofers, woofers, mid-range speakers, tweeters, super-tweeters through to surround sound. Imagine the day that surround sound comes out of your cool Apple HDTV while you're watching a movie, playing a video game or simply listening to iTunes without a speaker to be seen. Now that's cool thinking!
Apple Illustrates a Flexible Display Automatically Pushing up an iPad's Smart Cover for user Convenience
In addition to using flexible displays for integrating more speakers into various displays, Apple's mega patent filing also presented a very novel idea. It may be a little gimmicky, but sometimes they could be fun if done right. Basically what they're conveying here is that a future iPad could incorporate an actuator in the corners of the iPad as shown below in patent point # 130. When the user's hand approaches the iPad and Smart Cover, the actuator would sense this and the flexible display would exert a pressure on the iPad's Smart Cover which in turn would lift the cover up just enough for the user to effortlessly grab to open the cover.
Invisible Buttons that Only Surface when Needed
While this next feature may take years to ever come to market, it's one that I think has real potential to wow consumers. If you view this current patent concept as an island unto itself, then you'll miss the real flavor of what Apple is trying to deliver here. This current concept plays off of other patents that Apple owns relating to smart bezels. Two of my favorites cover smart bezels overall and another for sense lines, though there are plenty more on this topic to review if you wish. The idea that Apple is trying to deliver here is basically to provide consumers with a way to extend iPad or iDevice functionality with invisible buttons that are only available to the user when a specific gesture is made or when a certain app is chosen. The controls will match the app that you've chosen and when you're done, the added controls will disappear when the app is closed. So if you start a game for instance, the related controls will appear in the bezel. It could also work with general functions like calling up email lightning fast without having to go to your home page.
In Apple's latest patent, they envision the classic Home Button being invisible until the user's hand is in that specific area. According to Apple's patent, the location of interface component 24 shown below may be indicated visually using display pixels in a flexible display 14. The deformation of the flexible display in the vicinity of interface component 24, think home button, using a structural component that may also allow the user to locate interface component without any visual aid. Component 100 may be an isolated component indicating the location of a single interface component of touch-sensitive layer or may be one of an array of components indicating the locations of an array of interface components.
As shown in FIG. 12 above, a ridge or other deformation may be used to indicate the location of the button. Throughout this patent, Apple describes the flexible display as one covering the entire face of a device. This means that the black bezel in future iPads, iMacs and MacBook Pros could become interactive areas. See patent figures 33 and 34 where "IA" = Interactive Area.
While Apple Dabbles with Flexible Display Designs, it's not their Focus at the Moment
As duly noted in patent figures 17 and 22 above, Apple has dabbled with a few basic flexible display designs that cover a convex and concave display. Yet it would appear at this stage of the game that Apple's engineers are more focused on developing the functional aspects of flexible displays than they are with the esthetics.
During Apple's iPhone-5 event, Apple's VP of Marketing Phil Schiller stated the following as a kick to Samsung: "It is really easy to make a new product that's bigger. Everyone does that. The challenge is to make it better and smaller." Well that same philosophy could be extended through to flexible displays as well. Apple's not looking for flash-in-the-pan design form factors at the moment. No, they're hard at work on a different path which is to find new and fresh ways to add advanced features to their iDevices without marring the simplistic iDevice design (did I get that right, Jony? Ha!).
As a last note: if you carefully look at patent figure 22 above, you might agree with me that it's really an iPod nano fifth generation with an elongated display window. Obviously that idea has already been scrapped by their latest design.
A host of Apple patent applications were originally filed in March of this year and published by the World Intellectual Property Organization yesterday, September 27, 2012. The patents were first discovered by Staska writing for Unwired and it was a great find. I had a lot of fun skimming through these patents for unique applications not covered in their original report.
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