Well, talk about timing. The buzz over Apple's iWatch has been at fever pitch all week. Today, the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that reveals an advanced wearable computer in the form of a bracelet that could double as a watch. That's the key, as the bracelet goes far beyond being a wristwatch. Apple states that with a multitouch display, the user "can accomplish a number of different tasks including adjusting the order of a current playlist, or reviewing a list of recent phone calls. A response to a current text message can even be managed given a simple virtual keyboard configuration across the face of the flexible display." Apple also contemplates utilizing a solar panel beneath the display as well as take advantage of kinetic energy. This is one hot little invention and the drum that's been beating very loudly of late calling for an iWatch, appears to be well into development. Report Update March 01, 2013
Background on Wearable Accessories & the Slap Bracelet
Accessories for portable computing devices have become quite common. Today typical portable electronic device accessories are passive in nature, the majority of which simply function to protect the screen, or perhaps support the device in some specific orientation. Although some devices such as Bluetooth headsets and keyboards do have limited interactive capability the majority of accessories are limited to more basic tasks. These accessories can be improved by including at least some of the following features: (1) a power source; (2) a communications protocol; (3) an input method; and (4) an independent storage medium.
The most recent widespread use of such a device was the slap bracelet, also called the slap wrap. The slap bracelet consists of layered flexible steel bands sealed within a fabric cover. Typical slap bracelets are roughly one inch in width by nine inches in length. In a first equilibrium position they can be flat. The second equilibrium is typically reached by slapping the flat embodiment across the wrist, at which point the bracelet curls around the wrist and stays relatively secure in a roughly circular position.
The slap bracelet has been used primarily as a decorative bracelet; however, other uses have included for example keeping a pant leg away from a bike chain, or even using a slap bracelet covered with reflective tape for providing increased visibility for pedestrians and bikers at night. Perhaps most usefully it is quite easy to wrap around a wrist or leg, and stays conveniently in place.
Conversely conventional accessories for electronic devices do not tend to be easily wearable. They include various clips or may even rest precariously on an ear. In some cases accessory devices may even have to sit in a pant or coat pocket. Therefore an apparatus that capitalizes on the easily wearable nature of a bi-stable spring is desired
Apple's Wearable Video Device with Flexible Display
Apple's patent relates to a wearable video device arranged to be worn by an end-user. The wearable video device includes the following: (1) a flexible substrate having a flat state and a curled state; and (2) a flexible display disposed upon a first surface of the flexible substrate, where in the curled state the flexible substrate conforms to an appendage of the end-user. The flexible substrate also includes an electronic module in communication with the flexible display, the electronic module providing information to the display, at least a part of which is presented in real time for presentation by the display.
A method for passing information between an accessory device disposed on one surface of a bi-stable spring substrate and a portable electronic device is disclosed. The accessory device includes a flexible display arranged to present a first set of visual information. The portable electronic device has a portable electronic device display arranged to present a second set of visual information. The method includes the following steps: (1) determining whether the accessory device is being worn by an end-user where the determining is accomplished by at least one sensor on the accessory device; (2) when it determined the accessory device is being worn by the end user, establishing a communication channel between the accessory device and the portable electronic device where the communication channel is arranged to provide a bi-directional communication link between the flexible display and the portable electronic device; (3) passing information between the portable electronic device and the accessory device by way of the bi-directional communication link, where at least a portion of the passed information is presented by the flexible display as the first set of visual information; and (4) displaying the first set of visual information by the flexible display.
A slap bracelet configured to display information wirelessly transmitted from a portable electronic device is disclosed. The slap bracelet includes at least the following components: (1) a communication link, allowing two-way communication between the slap bracelet and the portable electronic device; (2) a flexible display disposed over a portion of a first surface of the slap bracelet; (3) a touch sensitive user interface disposed over the top of the flexible display; and (4) an electronic module disposed on one end of the first surface of the slap bracelet. Information generated on either device can be displayed on either the host device display or the flexible display.
Power Sources for a Wristwatch & Beyond
An accessory that takes a more active interaction role with the portable computing device would also typically need a power source to drive it. In some embodiments, a battery can be incorporated within the body of the accessory. The battery can take many forms. For example, the battery can be distributed in nature by which it is meant that portions of the battery can be placed in disparate locations in the accessory. In another example, the battery can be replaceable or otherwise accessible by the user.
The operating time of a built in battery can be augmented by the addition of an auxiliary power supply such as a solar panel array to the accessory. A solar panel array spread across a surface of the accessory device can lengthen the amount of time the accessory device could be operated between recharging. Apple was granted another solar centric patent earlier this month describing an integrated touch sensor solar cell panel surface for future iDevices.
A battery can also allow for the accessory device to continue nominal operations after the portable electronic device has been turned off or a communications channel between the two devices has been secured, especially with the inclusion of a small amount of storage space. For example, a simple screen saver could be displayed with an accessory device that includes a display. In another embodiment a short document or email could be reviewed. Other sources of power could include a kinetic power source similar to those found on some wristwatches. An accessory device designed to be worn on a leg or arm could greatly benefit from this sort of power generation, and could lengthen the amount of time between charging.
Active Communications between Accessory and Portable Device like an iPhone
Apple states that active communication between an accessory and a portable electronic device can be accomplished wirelessly. For example, a wireless data connection such as the 5 GHz 802.11n protocol can provide sufficient data transmission bandwidth to transmit a high quality video stream.
Apple states that a flexible display can be added to a conventionally designed slap bracelet. In Apple's patent FIG. 1 a cross section of a conventional slap bracelet with an overlaid display is shown. A thin steel bi-stable spring 102 is covered by fabric covering 104. The spring steel making up the bi-stable spring should be at least 0.006 inches thick. The fabric covering is heat sealed around the bi-stable spring at sealing positions 106. A thin, flexible display 108 can then be overlaid with an adhesive on one surface of the slap bracelet.
Quick Map Viewing
In FIG. 3B the accessory device is in a curled state and can be seen wrapped around the arm of a user. The accessory device is wrapped around an arm in a way such that the flexible electronic module is completely obscured by the wrap around flexible display leaving only a thin border to interrupt an otherwise continuous screen around the wrist.
According to Apple, a larger display is also more desirable for map viewing. The arm mounted location makes map viewing a desirable function for such a device, as a traveler or explorer can easily reference the information with a flick of the wrist while exploring.
Cool Blue Border Edge Lighting
Edge lighting is now also possible. For example a user could configure blue bordered edge lighting to surround the screen. Blinking lights displayed on the edges of the display can act as an event alert to a user that might be more effective since when the display is wrist or arm mounted it is the edge that generally is closest to the user, not the front.
Night Time Bike Ride Lighting
In yet another use an accessory device owner riding a bike could mount it on an arm or leg with some kind of bright pattern running along the screen for increased visibility.
The Bracelet Could Utilize Kinetic Energy
Apple states that the Kinetic energy gathering device noted above in patent figure 5A (# 502) has its advantages. Having the accessory device on an extremity is an ideal location for gathering kinetic energy. The simple motion of a user's arm or leg allows the accessory device to harness some of that energy for charging battery.
The Antenna in patent figure 5A (# 506) is for establishing and maintaining the connection between the bracelet accessory and a portable electronic device such an iPhone. The antenna can be configured to pass data over WiFi, Bluetooth or any other suitable wireless protocol.
The Bracelets use of an Inertial Orientation Sensor
Apple's patent figure FIG. 5B shows the bracelet in its curled state, attached to a user's wrist. As can be seen the display wraps completely around the wrist in this state creating an uninterrupted screen. One sensor that could be added to the components illustrated is an inertial orientation sensor, such as a gyroscope, or accelerometer.
By including an inertial orientation sensor displayed information could be arranged so that it always faces up, or directly towards the user. This conveniently allows a user to continue viewing information on the accessory device while maneuvering the extremity it is located on. In a power saving mode the inertial orientation sensor can be configured to only activate the display when the accessory device is rotated into a specific viewing orientation, thereby saving the user the hassle of having to push a button to activate the screen while still allowing for the power savings of a standby mode.
The Bracelet May use an AMOLED Display
In another aspect of the power saving mode the inertial orientation sensor could generate power savings by deactivating portions of the screen oriented away from the user. Because the flexible display technology uses an active matrix light emitting diode (AMOLED) display the deactivation of unused portions of the display helps significantly. This is due to the fact that AMOLED displays can activate individual pixels, and save energy when the number of illuminated pixels is reduced.
This aspect of the invention would explain why Apple recently recruited a former senior researcher at LG Display, Dr. Lee Jeung-jil, specializing in OLED displays.
Unique End-Detection Sensor Ensures a Snug Fit for any Arm or Leg Size
One challenge to overcome when making a continuous display that wraps all the way around an arm or leg is that these appendages invariably come in different sizes. Apple's patent FIG. 5C shown below illustrates one solution to this challenge. By including an end-detection sensor on the accessory device the location of the end of the accessory device can be known, and the accessory device can properly configure the screen to deactivate the covered portion of the screen.
In an embodiment with a touch screen sensor the touch screen itself can act as the end detection sensor. Capacitive elements 512 can be added to the end of the bracelet as illustrated, and when the touch screen is activate the touch screen can report the location of the capacitive elements and deactivate the covered portion of the screen. In this way the accessory device can be wrapped tightly around the wrist of any size user with no display discontinuity problems. A user can even switch between arm and leg mounting without having to go through a time consuming recalibration process each time.
Apple's patent FIG. 8 shows a flow chart describing input on a flexible wearable communication device which affects the operation of a portable electronic device.
Apple credits Fletcher Rothkopf, Derek Wright and Scott Myers as the inventors of this patent application which was originally filed under serial number 212045 in Q3 2011.
Update March 01, 2013: "Corning, the maker of glass for Apple's iPhones, said it will probably take at least three years before companies start making flexible displays using its new Willow material." Then again, that's assuming that Apple will wait for Corning. With Samsung aiming to have a flexible display product in 2013, can Apple reall wait that long? Time will tell.
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Sites Covering our Original Report
Popular Science, 9to5 Mac, Digital Trends, Think iOS, BGR, Computerworld Jonny Evans, Cult of Mac, The New York Times Bits Around the Web, The Mac Observer, phoneArena, MacDailyNews, NYT Blogrunner, iPhone-in-Canada, iClarified, Ars Technica, Macworld Brazil, The Fashion Spot and The Huffington Post.
Forbes, Gizmodo, Apple Caffe Italy,AppStudio Russia, AppleGeek Hungary, 99mac Sweden, iCatcher Germany, Obsession France, MakeMac Indonesia, Journal du Net France, BGR Germany, BFMTV France, Test Mobile France, IDGNOW Brazil, Applesfera Spain, Macworld UK, Synthese Informatique French-Luxembourg and Wired Japan.
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