Apple is one of the world’s leading patent holders.
Last year alone, it was granted more than 2,100 filings, taking its total to in excess of 75,000, and this huge catalogue has led to multiple patent wars with its rivals over the years. The tech giant has teams of researchers, engineers and designers across the world working on futuristic tech or solutions to existing problems and they can sometimes be used to get a glimpse at what Apple is likely to release next or at least what the company envisages in the future.
We’ve handpicked the most interesting, unusual or futuristic patents awarded to Apple over the past decade to showcase just how many fingers Apple has, or plans to have, in its tech pies.
Apple has been rumoured to be working on a pair of AR glasses for years after a paten revealed details of a system that involves superimposing digital cues over the display in a pair of glasses that the wearer can control using gestures. The initial patent, called “Method for representing points of interest in a view of a real environment on a mobile device and mobile device therefor” was first awarded in 2016. Since then, two continuation patents have been filed, and subsequently won, in 2017 and again earlier this year. Drawings show landmarks superimposed on a person’s field of view, helping them navigate and explore the streets of Munich. The wearer is then seen virtually selecting a landmark to learn more about it.
Touchscreen fingerprint scanner
A patent filed back in January 2013, and awarded just five months later, shows a fingerprint scanner being fitted into a touchscreen display, which would allow you to unlock your phone simply by touching the screen. At the time, the patent seemed a little far-fetched but following the release of the iPhone 5S in September that year, with its biometric TouchID feature, it made more sense of this patent and Apple’s plans for the technology. Of course, Apple has since abandoned TouchID in favour of FaceID on its latest iPhones but a number of models in its MacBook range still use fingerprint scanning built into a glass button that may well use elements of this original patent technology.
Biometric sports headphones
Speaking of biometrics, this patent from 2008 and awarded in 2014 describes a sports monitoring system for earphones capable of tracking a wearer’s temperature, heart rate, respiration and other vital signs. The drawings look very different to Apple’s proprietary earphones, in that they have an over-ear design, but they do look remarkably similar to Beats PowerBeats range, made by the company Apple bought the same year this filing was awarded. The patent also describes using the earphones to control a separate electronic device, which is a feature that has materialised with Apple’s earphones, but we’re yet to see the fully biometric versions pictured.
MacBook powered by an iPhone
Back in 2016, Apple filed a patent that, in hindsight, looks similar to the idea behind Samsung’s Dex. Described as simply an “electronic accessory device”, accompanying drawings show a phone being fitted into the casing of a laptop, where the touchpad would typically sit. This phone would then be used to power the laptop using its own processing power, GPU, CPU and more. In a separate drawing, a tablet is shown being slotted into a position where the laptop’s monitor would usually sit.
A camera fitted into an Apple Watch band
In a more recently awarded patent, Apple envisages fitting an optical sensor – read, camera – into a flexible loose strap attached to the band of its Apple Watch. The patent explains that the sensor would be placed at a “distal end portion of a watch band”, be used to take photos either via the Watch’s display or via an iPhone or iPad, and could then share the images over data transfer to a connected device. When it recently introduced cellular plans to its Apple Watch, the firm took a step towards making people less reliant on their phone and this patent supports this. As Apple explains in the filing: “A smartwatch that has the capability of capturing images and video may provide an opportunity for users to be more reliant on their smartwatch and less reliant on other devices [and may] enable a user to forego carrying a smartphone when doing activities where it would be difficult to take a smartphone (e.g., hiking, running, swimming, surfing, snowboarding, and any number of other situations).”
Self-adjusting watch strap
Continuing the Apple Watch theme, and appearing to take inspiration from the self-adjusting sneakers in Back To The Future, this patent describes a series of self-adjusting Apple Watch straps. Describing the technology as a “dynamic fit adjustment for wearable electronic devices”, wearers would be able to tighten or loosen the strap via the Watch display. It has been designed because, as the filing explains, “conventional watch bands may catch, pinch, or pull a user's hair or skin during use if the band is overly tight” and “users of conventional wristwatches and/or fitness/health tracking devices may select a tolerable (although not optimally comfortable) fit, reserving tight bands for fitness/health tracking devices and loose bands for conventional wristwatches.”
A crumb-repelling keyboard
One particular, truly useful patent that we’re disappointed not to have seen fully materialise yet is this filing, awarded in March 2018. Called an “Ingress prevention for keyboards,” the documents describe two separate systems that could be built into keyboards to stop crumbs, dirt and debris getting stuck under the keys. One system involves sealing the gaps between keys, while a second more technical idea sees a membrane being fitted beneath each key that would blow out air every time a key is pressed.
Apple wants to stop you filming concerts
In what could be seen as a controversial move, depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting, in 2016 Apple was awarded a patent designed to remotely disable the capturing of photos or video in certain locations. In particular, to stop people filming live gigs and shows. The filing explains that the technology could allow a camera on an iPhone to detect both visible and infrared light. As part of a positive use case, this infrared data could be used to show information about a museum exhibit, for example, or it could be used to disable the camera’s use during a live concert, to stop people filming a band, as demonstrated in this drawing.
Tiny sensors that can detect poisonous gases
More recently, in August, Apple was awarded a patent for a series of gas sensors and calibration modules that could one day be seen on a future iPhone. The filing describes a mobile device fitted with a miniature gas sensor capable of detecting metal-oxide (MOX) gases. In particular, the setup could be used to detect dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and could be adapted for future smart speakers or other home products in development by Apple. CEO Tim Cook recently described the company’s work in personal health and wellbeing as having the potential to be its “greatest contribution” to humanity.
In the same, health-related vein, a patent published at the start of January describes a smart glove interwoven with circuits that could be used to track vitals such as blood pressure, as well as heart rate and respiration. The conductive strands would use force-sensing technology to take its readings before sending the data to a connected laptop, phone or another mobile device.
Hardly a groundbreaking patent, now we know what we know about Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, the Huawei Mate X and a number of other folding devices, but this patent could prove significant in the future should Apple either enter the foldables market, or if it decides the existing models infringe on the details in this filing. The details are relatively simple, even if the technology is far from it, and the patent describes a display that folds and opens like a book, around a “foldable region.”
Interactive 3D holograms
One of the more complex, sci-fi patents in this list is a filing awarded in 2014 for an interactive three-dimensional display system. It describes a touchscreen fitted with projectors and mirrors that beam a 3D image that floats above the display and can be controlled and manipulated in mid-air. In particular, the setup would use a laser that creates a three-dimensional image in a “non-linear crystal or a three-dimensional display. It would then use a system of mirrors or lenses to project the image that has been formed on the display into mid-air. Sensors would then use so-called trilateration techniques to track hand movements and respond to the user's interactions.
Beyond the rumoured, patented AR glasses, Apple also recently won a filing for a mixed-reality system akin to Microsoft’s Hololens. The patent was filed in March this year and awarded just four months later, making it one of the fastest in this list. Like the Hololens, Apple’s proposed system consists of lenses and sensors fitted onto a head-mounted display. These sensors are described as being able to collect information about the user's environment such as depth and lighting information alongside sensors that collect information about the user’s expressions, eye movement, hand gestures, and so on).