Apple Reveals a Major Modular Wall Unit System that Automatically Configures Smart Homes & Buildings
Yesterday Patently Apple posted two reports covering devices introduced by Amazon. One of the reports covered a wireless mesh network system from "eero," a company that Amazon acquired earlier this year. The video below will provide you with an overview of the system.
Today the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that relates to a "Modular Wall Unit System." It's a vastly grander vision for Apple's next-gen Smart Home project – and well beyond a simple mesh network.
In Apple's patent background they note that smart home technology has greatly improved in power and functionality in recent years and can provide an enhanced user experience that can be tailored to meet an individual user's particular needs.
For instance, smart lights, smart security systems, smart entertainment systems, environmental control systems (HVAC), and the like, are becoming more and more customizable and integrated as the internet-of-things (IoT) sets a foothold in modern home designs.
Configuring the smart home can present many challenges. For instance, the differentiation of brands and their incompatibilities between each other, differing connection and communication protocols, wiring and connector types, hardware/software configurations, and general system set up can be daunting to the average consumer
Even technology savvy enthusiasts may be challenged by the non-intuitive and often frustratingly laborious process of configuring a fully integrated smart home. Furthermore, smart home networks often need to be reconfigured, sometimes extensively, as old equipment is replaced with new equipment. Despite the many advantages that smart home technology brings to society, there is a need for smart home systems that can allow lay-consumers to more easily customize, scale, and reconfigure their homes in a more effortless and user friendly manner.
Modular Wall Unit System
A Basic Overview of Apple's Patent
As a general non-limiting overview of Apple's invention, certain embodiments can relate to a modular and configurable system for a building (e.g., residential, commercial, or industrial site) that can automatically and dynamically configure a smart building (e.g., smart home) environment as modular accessories are added and removed from the system.
One of the core elements of the system includes a host unit and modular accessory. The host unit (e.g., see 200 in FIG. 2A directly below) can be embedded within (or coupled to) a structure of a building such as a wall, floor, or ceiling, and integrated with the electrical infrastructure of the home (e.g., electrical power grid, cable/Ethernet network, etc.).
The modular accessory (e.g., see FIGS. 5A-5D), such as a power outlet, light switch, sensor device, etc., can be configured to be interchangeably and non-destructively coupled and decoupled with the host unit. Once coupled, the system can automatically authenticate and configure (sometimes referred to as bootstrapping) the modular accessory by, for example, coupling AC power and/or Ethernet access to the accessory and configuring the setup and operation of the modular accessory in the smart home environment, which can include setting modular accessory control schemes (e.g., functionality and user control hierarchy) and the like.
Continuing the general overview, a network of host units can be configured to communicate with one another using any suitable communication protocol (e.g., ultra-wide band (UWB), radar, ultrasound, RF, etc.) to determine a distance and location of each host unit relative to one another.
Some embodiments include hardware elements (e.g., magnetometer, accelerometer, multiple antennas, etc.) to also determine an orientation of each host unit in three-dimensional space.
The system can then determine and auto-generate a floor plan for the building based on the determined locations, orientations, and distances without any necessary user input or interaction. This is broadly covered in Apple's patent FIGS. 7 and 8 below.
The system may process the distance and/or orientation data at a particular host unit, a central processing device operating as a "brain" (e.g., mobile computing device, desktop computer, etc.), an offsite cloud computing environment. With the determined floorplan, the system can make intuitive decisions for default auto-configuration of modular accessories.
For instance, in response to a control switch (e.g., light switch in a modular accessory) being installed in a particular host unit, the system may auto-configure the control switch to control the operation of a particular lighting element in a particular room after determining that the control switch is in the particular room and no other lighting elements or control switches are located in said room. This is but one simple example of the myriad possibilities achievable using aspects of the present invention.
Thus, aspects of the present invention provide a smart home environment that can allow users to more easily customize, scale, and reconfigure their homes in a more effortless and user friendly manner.
Some particular embodiments may include a modular host system with a host unit installed in a support structure (e.g., wall, ceiling, floor, etc.) of a building that can receive and house a modular accessory.
The modular accessory can be, e.g., a control switch (e.g., bistable switch, thermostat, etc.), power outlet, sensor module (e.g., image sensor, audio sensor, force sensor, etc.), or the like. The host unit may include a power gating module that can couple and decouple electrical power (e.g., AC or DC power) from an electrical source (e.g., utility grid, renewable energy resource, etc.) to the modular accessory, and a communication module that can communicate via hardwired (e.g., Ethernet, fiber optics, coaxial cable) or wireless communication (e.g., via ultra-wide band (UWB), radar, RF, etc.) with one or more additional host units installed in the building. In some embodiments, the communication module may perform a gating function to couple and decouple a physical network connection from a network source (e.g., Ethernet, fiber optics, coaxial) to the host unit.
Distance data corresponding to a distance between the host unit and each of the one or more additional host units can be gleaned from said wired or wireless communication.
In some implementations, the system can then automatically determine a floor plan of the building based at least on the determined distances from the host unit to the one or more additional host units.
In some cases, each host unit can include a self-orientation module that can determine an orientation of the host unit in three-dimensional (3D) space and, in some cases, an orientation relative to the support structure it is installed in.
The floor plan can further be based on orientation data from the orientation module. The orientation module can include an inertial motion unit (IMU), accelerometer, magnetometer, barometer, altimeter, one or more antennas or the like, as further described below.
Alternatively or additionally, some host units may be configured to track the relative position and orientation of a portable device (e.g., tablet computer, smart phone or wearable, laptop computer, etc.) that has a compatible communication module. Certain embodiments may employ an authentication module for additional security, as highlighted in Apple's patent FIG. 6 below covering the sequence chart.
Other Noteworthy Patent Figures
Apple's patent application 20190296506 that was published today by the U.S. Patent Office was filed back in Q1 2019 with a reference back to Q1 2018. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.
Some of the Inventors
Travis McQueen: Platform Architecture Engineer, since 2008.
Clark Della Silva: Hardware Development Engineer
Scott Johnston: Hardware Engineer
Wade Barnett: Mechanical Design Engineer