Apple supplier Foxconn was in the news on Friday in three unique instances. Our first report covered the rumor of a possible LCD Plant in the U.S. and our second report covered an investment in the Israeli company called Core Photonics that makes dual lens cameras for mobile devices that competes with the iPhone Plus camera. Foxconn and Samsung are noted as investors in the Israeli company. The third unique Foxconn investment that we learned of this week is one that they're making along with HP and Google. The latter investment is the most interesting of all because the investment is in a new company called 'Essential Products, Inc., who is owned by Android inventor Andy Rubin. Beyond an investment, Foxconn is in negotiations with Rubin to manufacture this next generation smartphone that Rubin has been working on with a team of engineers from both Apple and Google.
In December Rubin filed for the trademark 'Essential' with the U.S. Patent and trademark Office. Under application 87278834 as noted below we're able to see that the trademark was filed under International Class 009 covering mobile phones, smartphones, computers, tablet computers, replacement parts and accessories.
A second trademark filing that was made back in December 2016 under application 87275302 covered their corporate logo as noted in our cover graphic above (in two forms, with and without the word Essential).
The center piece of the Essential hardware line-up, according to a new Bloomberg report, is a smartphone with a large edge-to-edge screen that lacks a surrounding bezel. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January, Rubin discussed the smartphone with mobile carrier executives, including some from Sprint Corp., people familiar with the talks said. The smartphone is characterized by Bloomberg as a high-end smartphone that is likely to be aimed at Apple's iPhone.
At least one prototype of Rubin's phone boasts a screen larger than the iPhone 7 Plus's (5.5-inches) but has a smaller overall footprint because of the lack of bezels, one of the people said. The startup is experimenting with enabling the phone's screen to sense different levels of pressure, similar to an iPhone, the person said. Rubin's team is testing an industrial design with metal edges and a back made of ceramic, which is more difficult to manufacture than typical smartphone materials, two of the people said.
There are two granted patents on record covering this new smartphone. One of the patents is somehow blocked from viewing by U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) for whatever reason. When you feed in the granted patent number in the database, USPTO's page returns a statement that the "Full text is not available for this patent." The USPTO page informs readers to click on 'Images' to see the patent figures, but when you do that you end up with "Patent Not Found."
In the one patent that I could access I was able to see a number of aspects about the new smartphone. Bloomberg's report noted specifically that Essential's team was "experimenting with enabling the phone's screen to sense different levels of pressure." This is supported in the patent which goes into great depths on different levels of force touch.
The patent's FIG. 1 is noted above which describes a unique "unibody" design. The following covers an introduction to the new smartphone.
The Force Sensor System
The Essential invention covers "a mobile device with one or more contact features on a chassis shell to serve as interactive components and to facilitate detection of user interaction events. The contact features can include unibody contact features. A unibody contact feature is an integral part of the chassis shell adapted to enable a sensor system to detect user interactions (e.g., touch events or gestures) occurring on the unibody contact feature or proximate to the unibody contact feature. The unibody contact features can include bumps, divots, co-mold features, cantilever features, transparent or semitransparent features, or any combination thereof.
A sensor system can be mounted on a side of the chassis shell directly opposite from a contact feature. In some embodiments, the sensor system is in direct contact with the chassis shell. For example, the sensor system can be an electrical sensor system (e.g., detects patterns in electrical characteristics on a contact feature), an optical sensor system (e.g., detects patterns in visual images of or through a contact feature), a mechanical force sensor system (e.g., detects patterns in physical force from the contact feature), or any combination thereof.
The sensor system can include a resistive touch sensor and the unibody contact feature can include multiple electrically conductive portions exposed on an outer surface of the chassis shell separated by an electrically non-conductive portion of the outer surface. The sensor system can also include a capacitive touch sensor and the unibody contact feature can include an electrically conductive portion on the outer surface of the chassis shell separated by a dielectric layer underneath the outer surface.
In some embodiments, the sensor system (noted as #112 in FIG. 1) is a mechanical force sensor system. For example, the mechanical force sensor system can include a strain gauge, a pressure sensor, a force transducer, a vibration sensor, a microphone, or any combination thereof.
The chassis/unibody could be made of many materials including ceramic metal, glass, carbon fiber, silicone or any combination thereof.
The Optical Sensor System
In some embodiments, the sensor system is an optical sensor system. For example, the optical sensor system can include a camera, an infrared optical sensor, an optical sensor for nonvisible spectrum, or any combination thereof. For example, while the contact features (#116) are exposed on an exterior side of the chassis shell #102, one or more sensors can respectively be positioned on the inner side of the chassis shell directly across from the contact features. For directional sensors, the sensors can be directed toward the contact features.
In Essential's patent FIG. 5 noted above , we're able to see a perspective view of a smartphone having an optical sensor system #502 (shown in dashed lines) capable of visually detecting user interactions proximate to the smartphone.
The smartphone includes a chassis shell #506 having one or more non-opaque features (e.g., a non-opaque feature 510A and a non-opaque feature 510B, collectively as the "non-opaque features 510). The non-opaque features can be transparent or at least partially transparent to enables the optical sensor system to detect visual movements; the optical sensor system can therefore detect images of one or more objects outside of the smartphone.
In some embodiments, the optical sensor system determines a user interaction event based on image analysis of one or more captured images.
In some embodiments, the optical sensor system determines a user interaction event based on video analysis of a sequence of one or more images captured by the optical sensor system.
For example, the user interaction event can be a touch event or a user gesture event.
The optical sensor system can register the touch events with a processor. In some embodiments, the optical sensor system can detect images in the visual spectrum. In some embodiments, the optical sensor system can detect images outside of the visual spectrum, such as infrared spectrum.
In some embodiments, the optical sensor system includes a light source. For example, the optical sensor system can include an infrared light emitter, a light-emitting diode, a laser, or any combination thereof.
The Smartphone will use a Proprietary Connector
The Bloomberg report also pointed to a new connector: "Essential's engineers are developing a proprietary connector that serves double duty for charging the battery and expanding the phone's functionality over time, one person familiar with the planning said. The magnetic connector would allow Essential or even third parties to create hardware accessories that add features to the smartphone."
One of the inventors listed on the Essential Products patent also invented a proprietary connector while he was working for Lytro, Inc. Interestingly "Lytro is building the world's most powerful Light Field imaging platform enabling artists, scientists and innovators to pursue their goals with an unprecedented level of freedom and control. This revolutionary technology will unlock new opportunities for photography, cinematography, mixed reality, scientific and industrial applications." You could learn more about lytro light field technology here and here.
If the 'Essential' smartphone's camera has any connection with Lytro, and that's a big if, then it could be a game changer for photographers. It's Apple's depth-imaging 'Portrait' feature for the Bokeh effect on steroids.
The connector noted below was granted a patent in February 2016. It's a design patent which means we have absolutely no details about the connector other than visuals.
According to the Bloomberg report, Andy "Rubin is aiming to put the phone on sale around the middle of this year for a price close to that of an iPhone 7 ($649)." With Ruben having worked with AI systems, it's yet another angle that may emerge with Essentials new smartphone and other mobile products.
For Foxconn, it's an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a potentially successful new smartphone and gain a contract to manufacture it. For HP, it could be a breakthrough smartphone for them to get behind. It could be a smartphone that could put them on the map in this crowed field if it introduces breakthrough features that could challenge the status quo.
The most intriguing connection of all is Google. Will this next-gen smartphone be powered by Android or a whole new OS written from scratch offering advanced graphics, photography and mixed reality features that could end up being Google's high-end OS.
Looking at the partners gathering behind this venture tells us that it's not a mickey mouse adventure. So 2017 is going to be one hell of an exciting year with Apple's anniversary iPhone, the comeback of Samsung's Note smartphone and now the mystery "Essential" smartphone to mix things up. Just when things were starting to get a little boring on the smartphone front, it seems that 2017 could be the beginning of a new wave of innovation that might even tap into foldables later this year. Enjoy the ride.