Today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that reveals a new optical connector. Apple introduced the "Smart Connector" when launching their new the iPad Pro. Apple notes that "The Smart Connector transfers both data and power between iPad Pro and the Smart Keyboard — no batteries or charging required. Just attach the Smart Keyboard, then start typing. And when you disconnect, an onscreen keyboard automatically reappears." Today's invention either covers the evolution of the current Smart Connector" or is revealing the next-generation of the connector. Apple's patent filing describes a near invisible optical connector in great detail which differs from the current Smart Connector. Further, Apple's filing reveals that they intend to extend this new optical connector that's cosmetically pleasing to future devices such as an iPhone, MacBook and beyond, including accessories such as docking stations and medical devices. The patent filing also reveals that charging future devices with the new optical connector could include the addition an inductive charging component. By eliminating the Lightning connector, future iPhone designs would be cosmetically superior while likely supporting better future waterproofing.
Apple's Patent Background
Many electronic devices include electrical connectors that receive and/or provide data. These electrical connectors are typically receptacle connectors and are designed to receive a single male plug connector extending from a cable, thereby forming one or more conductive paths for signals. The cable may also be attached to power adapters, accessories, devices or other connectors (e.g., plug or receptacle connectors), thereby allowing signals to be exchanged via the cable.
As the cosmetic appearance and convenience of electronic devices continue to become more important, devices are increasingly leveraging wireless signal transfer to obviate the need for physical connectors for communication between devices. However, the use of certain forms of wireless communication creates a number of challenges. For example, Bluetooth, one form of wireless communication used for communication between devices, can consume a significant amount of power. On the other hand, optical communication between devices may require less power, but conventional optical connector interfaces are visible and may detract from the overall cosmetic appearance of a device.
Current electronic devices, portable and otherwise, may suffer from some or all of these deficiencies or from similar deficiencies.
Apple's Invention: A New Optical Connector
Various embodiments of the present invention pertain to an optical connector for an electronic device that improves upon some or all of the above described deficiencies. For example, an optical connector can include an interface at an external surface of a device having a plurality of non-visible openings, instead of a light-permeable window, through which optical signals can pass. As such, optical signals can still be transmitted and received through the plurality of openings of this interface, but the connector interface may not be visible, thereby allowing the cosmetic appearance of the device to be unaffected by the optical connector interface. This optical connector can also enable devices to communicate with other devices, including peripherals, while consuming less power than would be consumed by Bluetooth communication between devices.
Apple's patent FIG. 4A noted below is a perspective view of an electronic device with a housing and a display partially cut away to reveal a simplified, partial section view of a female optical connector.
Apple notes that an electronic device can include a connector having a mating region that includes a plurality of openings, the mating region forming a portion of an exterior surface of the electronic device. The connector can include an active optical component for at least one of transmitting or receiving optical signals, the active optical component positioned adjacent to the plurality of openings, wherein each of the plurality of openings can be sized such that an amount of light passing through any single opening of the plurality of openings is insufficient for communicating with a corresponding connector using an optical signal. The electronic device can also include a lens positioned between the plurality of openings and the active optical component.
Further, an electronic device can include a housing having a mating region that includes an optical channel having a plurality of openings extending between exterior and interior surfaces of the housing. The electronic device can also include a processor positioned within the housing. The electronic device can further include an optical connector positioned adjacent to the mating region, the optical connector including an active optical component operatively coupled to the processor and a lens positioned between the optical channel and the active optical component, wherein the optical component is configured to transmit and receive optical signals between the electronic device and a corresponding optical connector associated with a second device through the optical channel, and wherein each individual opening in the plurality of openings is too small to allow an optical signal to be communicated over the optical channel through the individual opening.
Apple notes that the optical connector technology is based on either Infrared Data Association (irDA) or Consumer IR protocols.
Apple also notes that electronic devices using the new optical connector can also include power contacts (e.g., flush pins or electrical contacts) and/or inductive charging elements at the optical connector interface to charge the electronic device, e.g., to offset power consumed while engaging in optical communication using an optical connector according to the present invention.
Apple notes that while the invention is shown in context with an iPad, the technology could be used with other products in the future including an iPhone, iPod, MacBook, iMac (desktops), and accessories such as docking stations, smart covers (smart keyboard), keyboards, heart rate monitors, game controllers, holographic projection systems and more.
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