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Apple Seeks to Reinvent the Connector System

1. Cover - Apple Seeks to Reinvent the computer connector system
On October 10, 2013, the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that reveals their intent to one day reinvent the connector system for both Macs and iDevices. It's a universal desire for consumers to have a simplified connector system for computers or other electronics – and yet technically there are so many electrical standards in place today that it's close to impossible to think that we could have a utopian universal connector system. Yet Apple plugs away believing there's a way to be the first computer company to crack this nightmare of differing connectors; a way to keep the connectors on a Mac or iDevice super simple. Apple began this project back in 2011 and today we're getting more detailed information about how the reinvention of the connector system could one day be a reality.

Apple's Patent Background


The number of types of electronic devices that are commercially available has increased tremendously the past few years, and the rate of introduction of these devices shows no signs of abating. Devices, such as tablet, laptop, netbook, desktop, and all-in-one computers; cell, smart, and media phones; storage devices, portable media players, navigation systems, monitors, and others, have become ubiquitous.


Often, these electronic devices communicate with other electronic devices. As just one example, a desktop computer may need to communicate with a monitor or display device. Such communications may take place over a cable. Currently, some electronic devices may include many connector receptacles including USB, HDMI, DVI, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, FireWire, power, Ethernet, stereo audio and other types of interfaces.


Such diversity is not without its downside. The inclusion of so many connectors consumes space inside the electronic device, as well as the surface area of its outer case. This means that smaller devices may only be able to include a limited number of connectors.


Also, different communication interfaces typically employ different connectors that cannot be mated with each other. For example, a plug connector for a USB interface can't be mated with a receptacle connector for a FireWire interface. Furthermore, each set of corresponding connectors (male and female connectors of a particular interface that are designed to be mated with each other) can typically only be connected in one particular orientation.


Attempts to mate corresponding connectors with each other in the wrong orientation will fail just as attempts to mate incompatible connectors with each other will fail. Customer confusion may result as users try to determine which receptacle connector on the computer or other electronic device a plug connector for a particular cable or accessory must be mated with as well as which orientation matching connectors much be connected together in.


Apple Seeks to Reinvent the Connector System


Apple's invention is about reinventing the receptacle connector system by improving some or all of the above described deficiencies. Embodiments of the invention are not limited to receptacle connectors on computing devices and may be used for numerous other electronic devices. Some embodiments, however, are particularly well suited for computing devices such as the Mac Pro, iMac, MacBooks and iDevices as Apple notes below in their patent figures.


2. Apple seeks to revinvent the computer connector system

The Computer will Sense the Needed Plug Connector


Apple's patent claim 15 covers a method "wherein the sensing is provided by at least one of the following group: an electrical sensor, a two-way radio transmitter-receiver, a magnetic sensor, and an optical sensor."


Apple's patent FIG. 8 noted below illustrates a method of forming an electrical connection between one or more plug connectors and a receptacle connector in accordance with principles of the present invention.


3. Apple patent - Plug Connector Sensed - fig 8

One of the key points of Apple's invention is that the system can "sense" the characteristics of a plug connector. Several different characteristics may be sensed in several ways, including illustrative methods. For example, electrical sensors may sense electrical characteristics, e.g., the resistance or voltage between two contacts, of a plug connector.


Visual Indicators may Include Cameras, Symbols, Lights, Shapes & Bar Codes


As another example, optical sensors such as camera may sense visual indictors, e.g., symbols or markings, on a plug connector. The sensing of the one or more characteristic may be sequential or simultaneous.


In some embodiments, one or more optical sensors, e.g., camera or diode, may be implemented to determine the type, position, orientation, and/or other information regarding a mated plug connector. For example, cameras may be used as part of one or more optical sensors disposed on a receptacle connector, e.g., between the contacts of a receptacle connector. One or more symbols or other visual indicators indicative of the type and/or orientation of a plug connector may be printed or otherwise disposed on the plug connector. The one or more optical sensors may also include circuitry for optical symbol recognition to determine the connector type and orientation of a mated plug connector based on the symbol or other visual indicators viewed by the camera.


For example, the one or more optical sensors may be able to determine plug connector type from a visual indicator on the plug connector and the orientation of a plug connector with respect to the receptacle connector based on the orientation of the visual indicator. Lights, e.g., infrared lights, may be disposed on the connector receptacle to illuminate, or otherwise make visible to the one or more cameras on the receptacle connector, the symbol or visual indicator on the plug connector.


The symbols or visual indicators disposed on the plug connector may be shapes of specific colors or may be more complex designs. In some embodiments there may be one or more colored or non-colored shape or shapes above each contact indicating the purpose of each contact, from which the plug connector type, position and orientation may be determined.


Alternatively, bar codes could be disposed on the plug connector and bar code scanners could be used as optical sensors disposed on the receptacle connector side. In these embodiments, the position of the bar code with respect to the other contacts could indicate the orientation of the connector.


Utilizing Near Field Sensors


In additional embodiments, Apple states that radio frequency (RF) sensors, e.g., radio-frequency identification (RFID) or near field communication (NFC), may be implemented to determine the type, position, orientation, and/or other information regarding a mated plug connector.


For example, a two-way radio transmitter-receiver, e.g., interrogators or readers, may be disposed on a connector receptacle and one or more RFID tags could be disposed on the plug connector. The RFID tags may send a response including the plug connector's type when queried by the two-way radio-transmitter-receiver disposed on the receptacle connector. The RFID tags may send responses when the plug connector is mated with or proximate to the receptacle connector.


Other sensors may be relied upon to detect mating events and determine the plug connector position and orientation with respect to the receptacle connector. Hmm, I wonder if a modified form of iBeacon could be implemented for this system.


Patent Credits


Apple credits Fletcher Rothkopf and Mathias Schmidt as the inventors of patent application 20130267120 which was originally filed in Q2 2012 and published today by USPTO.

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