Microsoft, Apple and Google Aim to Extend Touch Technologies to a World of new Devices and Applications
This week the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Microsoft about a new embedded sensor system that will allow touch controls to extend beyond traditional devices like a notebook touchpad through to clothing, in-home appliances, vehicle dashboards and steering wheels, a future Xbox controller, HoloLens and beyond. While Microsoft is working to make this happen in the not too-distant-future, Google is also working on bringing this technology to smart garments, according to a recent patent filing. Apple, on the other hand, has already brought embedded touch controls to their Magic Mouse and new Apple TV remote with Siri and has been working on this since 2007. But with patents from Google and Microsoft now coming to light, it's a sure thing that the race is now on to bring touch controls to a universe of new devices in the coming years. Today's report covers Microsoft's latest patent revelations along with highlights from Apple products and patents to demonstrate that Apple has been ahead of the curve on this front for many years.
Microsoft notes in their patent filing that designers of devices are continually looking to improve the accuracy and efficiency of touch, gestural, and other input mechanisms supported by devices to make it easier for users to interact with device, and thereby increase the popularity and utility of the devices. Traditionally, sensor systems utilize rigid components, such as printed circuit boards (PCBs), which makes it difficult to shape the sensors and/or include sensors in flexible or irregularly shaped objects and surfaces. Thus, the rigidity of traditional sensor systems limits the ways in which the sensors may be employed and the kinds of devices that can make use of the sensor systems. Microsoft's latest invention is to overcome these shortcomings so as to allow a new generation of devices to include touch and gestural controls. .
Introducing Embroidered Touch Sensor Systems
Microsoft's invention relates to embroidered sensor assemblies. In one or more implementations, the embroidered sensor assembly is formed on a flexible substrate, such as a suitable fabric material. Conductive patterns are sewn or stitched into the flexible substrate using embroidery techniques to form an array of sensors that can be configured in various ways and used in many different applications.
In Microsoft's patent FIG. 1 we're able to see an example of an embroidered sensor assembly. In particular, a sensor assembly #102 is represented as a flexible substrate #104 and an arrangement of embroidered sensors #106 that are embroidered (e.g., stitched or sewn) into the flexible substrate, In this example, the embroidered sensors are depicted as being arranged as a generally rectangular grid or array of conductive wires or threads in rows and columns.
The conductive wires may be configured as thin strands of metal such a copper or using another conductive material. The wires may have a diameter in range of about thirty to one hundred microns. Even larger diameter sizes up to several millimeters (e.g., approximately 2 mm to 5 mm) may also be used depending up the end use scenario. The conductive wires form intersections (e.g., nodes and/or electrodes) that correspond to positions of individual sensing points.
Although a rectangular grid arrangement is depicted, other patterns are also contemplated such as, by way of example and not limitation, hexagonal arrangements, concentric circles, a spiral arrangement, parallel lines, horizontal rows, vertical columns, individual points, and irregular arrangements.
The flexible substrate is representative of a flexible base material that is suitable for embroidering of the embroidered sensors. By way of example and not limitation, the flexible substrate may be configured using various fabric materials. The fabric materials can include woven and non-woven textiles as well as synthetic and natural fabrics. Flexible plastic and polymers substrates are also contemplated.
The sensor assembly can be configured to implement various kinds of sensors and sensing such as proximity, motion, flow direction and rates, gestures, and/or strain, to name a few examples.
Sensors may be arranged to measure mutual capacitance or self-capacitance. The sensor assembly can also implement conductive nodes configured to enable pressure and/or force sensitive controls for an input device, such as a keyboard, trackpad, mouse, etc. Something that Apple has already accomplished and implemented with their Magic Mouse as noted below.
In one of Apple's continuation patents published this week by the U.S. Patent Office Apple notes that a future head mounted display system would utilize a touch sensor on the exterior of the headset that would allow users to control content and audio volume. As with the Magic Mouse, the controls will simply be present on the device to accept gestures or motions to initiate them yet not be seen to clutter the interface of the device.
Possible Applications for Embroidered Sensors
As Microsoft notes in patent FIG. 2 below, their invention could be implemented in a wide range of future products including flexible displays, the HoloLens, Surface devices (tablets, notebooks, desktop), Xbox, a smartphone, a smartwatch, a smartband, a helmet, sporting equipment such as balls, a tennis racquet, a ring, an article of clothing, a glove, protective gear, sports pads, and a bracelet, to name but a few examples.
Another area where embroidered sensors will come to market will support the smart home, our vehicles and beyond. Microsoft notes that an embroidered sensor assembly can be embedded in, attached to, or otherwise associated with various different kinds of smart objects including furniture, appliances, industrial equipment, and other manufactured goods. Examples of smart objects could include devices including pipe and other objects such as lamps, doors, locks, molded plastic devices, products for automobiles or aircraft, a lounge chair, a coffee maker and more.
By way of example and not limitation, the embedding process #602 noted in patent FIG. 6 above, may involve surrounding an arrangement of a sensor assembly with a thermosetting resin and curing the thermosetting resin by applied heat or radiation to form the rigid structure #604. In another example, the embedding process involves arranging the sensor assembly in a mold and then melting a thermoplastic polymer and press molding or injection molding the thermoplastic polymer to surround the sensor assembly and form the rigid structure.
While Apple has never called their invisible sensors for the Magic Mouse 'embroidered sensors' they nonetheless have delivered on such sensors and plan to expand on this as noted with their future headset. Apple may also bring touch sensors to future Apple Watch smartbands (one and two) that could include motion sensors as Microsoft's patent has noted.
In 2014 Patently Apple posted a report titled "Could Apple be Eying Smart Clothing as the Next Big Thing?" Certain Apple patents and specific hires from the fashion world along with their involvement with the Met Museum's 2016 Fashion Exhibit on Fashion in an Age of Technology is teasing us into thinking tht Apple may be thinking of fashion beyond the Apple Watch. Apple could have hired many people to run the Apple Store operations but purposely chose to hire Angela Ahrendts who was CEO of Burberry a high-end fashion company. Beyond money, why would a successful CEO in fashion want anything to do with a restrictive computer company? Is it just coincidence or does Apple have a bigger vision for fashion and technology?
Digging back even further, I was able to find a 2007 Apple patent filing that was published in 2012 covering technology along this same front. Patently Apple's report covering this patent was titled "Apple Wins Next Generation Multi-Touch Skin Technology." The patent forecasted bringing touch sensors to objects like an in-home or in-office globe, vehicle steering wheels and a remote control. Is that not what the new Apple TV remote with Siri offers? Yes, of course and Apple has been working on that for years ahead of Microsoft and others.
Of course Google has now woken up to this next wave of sensors and filed a patent that we covered just last month titled "Google invents a Touch Gesture System Designed Specifically for Future Smart Garments."
In the end, it would appear that Apple is well ahead of the completion on sensors beneath device surfaces, though they've yet to advance into the world of fashion. Microsoft clearly wants to quickly move into this area of technology as noted in this week's patent revelations. They could easily begin by incorporating their embroidered sensor system into future versions of their Xbox controller, HoloLens headset and Surface devices and move into other areas over time.
Whether you call it embroidered sensors or invisible sensors, the fact is that touch sensors are about to go beyond notebook touchpads and touch displays for smartphones and tablets and begin to enter the general device world for in-home devices, in-vehicle applications and eventually smart clothing over the next five years. The good news is that Apple has been way ahead of the curve in this area so it'll be interesting to see where they take this touch technology next.
Microsoft filed their patent application back in Q2 2015 which was published by USPTO this past week. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such products to market is unknown at this time.
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