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A Major Tactile Output Patent Surfaces Covering Trackpads, iDevice Displays and even a Feature for Foldable Devices



Apple began filing patents regarding displays and trackpads that could one day provide tactile feedback since at least 2010. In 2015 Patently Apple posted an IP report titled "Apple Invents an Advanced Diamond Layered Trackpad that Delivers Next-Gen Tactile Sensations Including Texture." Today the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that once again advances the possibility that Apple is getting closer to delivering next-gen tactile experiences for displays, trackpads, device covers, fabric device housings and more. It could assist in delivering the feel of fabrics or textures. It could be used to create an interface for braille and extend through to CarPlay displays and beyond. Apple's patent application feels more like a master patent trying to cover the widest range of applications without ever getting too specific to let us know what we may experience first. The patent even extends to touching on a feature that Apple may use with future folding smartphones.


Apple's Patent Background


Electronic devices often include displays for presenting images to a user. Touch screen displays have touch sensors to gather touch input from a user. Touch input and force input can also be gathered using track pads.


When gathering user input such as touch input, a user's finger or other external object may slide across the surface of a touch screen display or track pad with little or no resistance. This lack of tactile feedback can reduce the ability of the user to accurately supply input to an electronic device.


To provide improved feedback as a user is interacting with a touch screen display, the display may be provided with haptic feedback capabilities. A screen may, for example, be provided with a vibrator. When a user selects an on-screen option, the vibrator may vibrate the display to provide the user with tactile information indicating that the on-screen option has been selected.


Vibrating input-output devices such as displays provide more tactile feedback than devices without vibrators, but cannot provide user with as much tactile feedback as a real-life keyboard or other physical input device. It would therefore be desirable to be able to provide improved haptic feedback arrangements for components such as displays and track pads.


Apple's invention covers Input-output devices such as a track pad in a MacBook. The input-output devices may include components such as touch sensors and force sensors for gathering input from a user. Display structures may include a display such as an organic light-emitting diode display, a liquid crystal display, or other display that can present visual information to the user. The display may be a flexible display.


To provide the user with tactile output, an output device such as a display or track pad may be provided with electroactive polymer structures, electromagnetic actuators, and other tactile output devices.


The tactile output devices may provide protrusions, indentations, selectively stiffened and softened areas, and other tactile output for a user. A user of a display may, for example, be provided with deformed portions that surround an on-screen option or a highlighted item.


The deformed portions provide the user of the touch screen display with tactile feedback as the user is providing touch input to interact with information displayed on the touch screen display.


In Apple's patent FIG. 17 presented below we're able to see a perspective view of a MacBook having a track pad of the type that may be used to gather touch input and provide a user with tactile output; FIG. 4 is a cross-sectional side view of an illustrative deformable input device with a touch sensor; FIG. 5 is a cross-sectional side view of an illustrative deformable input device of the type shown in FIG. 4 in which a portion of the device has been deformed to provide a user with tactile output.



Fluid Based Methodology: Apple's patent FIG. 18 noted above is a cross-sectional side view of an illustrative fluid-based tactile output device.


Apple further notes that a tactile output device may be formed on top of a rigid or flexible display. In this type of configuration, a flexible polymer layer or other structures in the tactile output device may be deformed to produce tactile output for a user.


While displays, touch pads, and other components may be selectively deformed, it should be noted that housing structures or other movable structures in a device may be moved using shape memory metal actuators, electromagnetic actuators, microelectromechanical systems devices, fluid-based actuators, electroactive polymer devices, and other actuators.


If desired, a display may be formed from a mesh-shaped polymer substrate having an array of openings. Micro-light-emitting diodes or other light-producing structures may be mounted on the mesh-shaped polymer substrate. Actuators for a tactile output device may be located in the openings. The mesh-shaped substrate, micro-light-emitting diodes, and tactile output device components may be embedded in a flexible polymer layer.


A Future Foldable Device Application


Electroactive polymer actuators or other actuators may be used to automatically open and close a foldable electronic device with a flexible display.


Control circuitry may place the device in an open position or a closed position by applying electric fields to the electroactive polymer or by otherwise controlling actuators in the electronic device.


In November 2016 Patently Apple posted a report titled "Apple Wins Surprising Patent for a Future Bendable or Foldable iPhone using Advanced Carbon Nanotube Structures." Today's patent application revelation provides us with a tiny clue that Apple is working a very unique feature, that for now we can only partly understand.


Tactile Applications to Extend to a Wide Range of Future Devices


Although Apple illustrates a future MacBook and a generic tablet-like device as examples of devices using this next generation of tactile applications, Apple makes it clear that it could apply to a wide range of future devices such as an iPhone, iPod, iPad, computer monitor, Apple Watch and other wearables, while it may also be embedded into displays in a vehicle or kiosk.

Beyond the normal range of devices listed in patents, Apple goes far beyond into new applications described as follows:

"If desired, tactile output can be provided through surfaces in device 10 that are not associated with display 14 such as a track pad surface, a housing surface, a fabric surface in a cover, case, or bag, a fabric surface in a watch band, a fabric surface or other surface that covers seating or the interior surfaces of a vehicle or room, a surface that covers a portion of a piece of furniture, or other surfaces.


Tactile output can be provided by a device that also gathers touch input (e.g., to provide tactile feedback associated with a user's on-screen touch manipulation of an object, menu option, etc.) and/or may be provided on a surface of a device that does not include a touch sensor for gathering touch input (e.g., the inner surface of a watch band, etc.). The surface that provides the user with tactile output may be curved or planar."


Beyond tactile for touch with a user's fingers, Apple also notes that it could be used with Apple Pencil. Apple notes in patent point #40: "Tactile output may be sensed using a stylus, brush, or other inanimate object that contacts the display.


Another Tactile Output Application includes Braille


The pattern of deformed portions of layers 52 may be used to form Braille characters, may be used to create button outlines and other on-screen features that help a user locate the boundaries of selectable on-screen options and other displayed content, may be used to create tactile feedback as a user is interacting with a touch sensitive item displayed on layers 52 (e.g., feedback that lets a user know that a drag and drop operation on a particular on-screen item is being performed satisfactorily), may be used to display tactile output associated with a text message or other electronic communication with a remote user, may be used to enhance video content and images, or may be used to provide other tactile output to a user. The tactile output may be supplemental (e.g., to help inform a user of the location of the borders of on-screen items that are already delineated visually) and/or may be used in lieu of displayed image content (e.g., to produce Braille characters for visually impaired users in the absence of any visual output in layers 52).


Another Tactile Device Methodology


Apple's patent FIG. 16 is a perspective view of an illustrative micro-light-emitting diode array for a display having a mesh shaped substrate and an actuator formed in an opening in the substrate for providing tactile output.



Apple's patent application was filed back in Q3 2016. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.


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