What Apple patents say about iPhone 7, iPad Air 3, Apple Watch, new Macs & other future products

There are many clues about future Apple products in Apple's patent portfolio. Here, we explore the most exciting of Apple's patents to see what we can uncover about unreleased products, including the iPhone 7, new iPads, the Apple Watch, upcoming Macs and other future tech What is Apple working on behind the scenes What can we expect from Apple in 2015 and the years to follow Here, we explore Apple's patent portfolio to find out.

Apple is famously secretive, but like all companies it has to issue a list of patents to the USPTO (United States Patent & Trademark Office) and these provide hints at future and upcoming projects.

Apple is known for its patents, which are detailed but often try to disguise product plans with in-depth technicality. In addition to protecting the company's current product line-up from sneaky copycats, many of those Apple patents outline fascinating technologies that the company is working on or is interested in, and show the direction its products could take in the future.

Here are some key Apple patents that give an insight into the kinds of technology Apple is hoping to use in its future products.

What Apple patents say about iPhone 7

Many of Apple's patents could be applied to future versions of its iPhone, perhaps even the upcoming iPhone 6S or iPhone 7. Here are just a few of them.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Sidewall displays

Concept by Michael Shanks.

In May 2014, Apple was granted a patent for "Electronic devices with sidewall displays," which, if ever used, could mean our iPhones and iPads may one day have displays around the sides and edges, as well as on the front. The patent suggests that the sidewall displays could be an extension of the main touchscreen, and they could have interactive or touch sensitive portions.

Apple has several ideas about what the sidewall displays could be used for. In some embodiments, Apple suggests that some app icons can be displayed there, or that the displays could be used for slide-to-unlock functionality, music player controls, messaging readout, caller ID, system controls and more.

Samsung has actually released the Galaxy Note Edge, which has a display that wraps around one edge of the smartphone. You can find out more about the Galaxy Note Edge here.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Accident-free buttons

In May 2014, a patent titled "Configurable Buttons for Electronic Devices" was published by USPTO, describing a touch-sensitive button that could help prevent accidental inputs. The patent covers a physical button that also has a touch sensor, which would know when a user's finger is touching it rather than another object in a bag.

The buttons highlighted in Apple's patent include the power, sleep, menu, volume and multipurpose buttons that are physical on most mobile devices and are therefore prone to accidental input.

Apple's Touch ID home button uses similar technology to the technology described in this patent, though it's also used as a security measure thanks to a fingerprint scanning authentication method.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Greater touch accuracy

Along the same lines, Apple has been awarded a patent that could help prevent accidental touch input from iPhone users on the move.

The patent describes a "variable device graphical user interface" that adapts to movement using sensors that detect patterns of motion. This could make it possible to use an iPhone while running or jogging, for example.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Curved display

A patent has been awarded to Apple for the method of manufacturing curved touchscreens, which could mean that the iPhone 6S or other future iPhone or iPad could have a curved display like the LG G Flex 2.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Flexible iPhone

Taking that even further, in January 2015 Apple was awarded a patent that suggests that the company is investigating the idea of a flexible iPhone (and we're not talking about the #Bendgate kind).

The Patent suggests that, by making the iPhone flexible, the user could open a specific application by bending it in a particular way, or even use the flexibility to control a game.

Additionally, by making the iPhone flexible, the device should be more resistant to impacts and therefore more durable.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Your face is your password

In December 2014, USPTO awarded Apple a patent relating to a "personal computing device control using face detection and recognition."

With the iPhone 6 and now the Apple's latest iPads, you can unlock the device using just your fingerprint thanks to the Touch ID sensor, but with this patent, future iPhones and other devices could be unlocked using facial recognition. So effectively, your face could soon become your password.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Advanced Touch ID fingerprint sensor

A mammoth 612-page patent application filed by Apple in May 2014 and published by the World Intellectual Property Organisation in November reveals that Apple is investigating further uses for its fingerprint sensing technology.

The Touch ID, introduced with the iPhone 5s, is just the beginning of what Apple could use the technology for. Keeping the sensor beneath the Home button but adding further functionality is one of the features Apple mentions in the patent. For example, Apple could introduce gestures to the Touch ID Home button.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Touch ID display

Apple is even investigating including the fingerprint scanner into the display of a smartphone or tablet, taking the technology even further. In fact, Apple filed a patent describing a Touch ID display back in January 2013.

This technology means that you could place your finger on the display to scan it, instead of the Home Button. We're not sure if this technology was an original variation to the Home Button scanner found on the iPhone 5S, or if it'll be combined with the Haptics & Tactile technology to remove the Home Button on a future iPhone and replace it with a virtual on-screen button.

The patent describes a touchscreen display with a fingerprint-sensing layer that could be used to introduce advanced multi-user support.

For example, Apple could use the fingerprint sensing display to only allow particular users to open certain apps. This could be useful for those with children who like to explore the iPad, for example.

Additionally, Apple could take the display even further. It could be used in conjunction with a piano app, for example, to teach users the correct finger placement for the instrument.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Attack detection mode

In March 2014, USPTO published an Apple patent filing that could be used to protect iPhone owners when they're in distress.

The patent, titled "Mobile emergency attack and failsafe detection", describes a feature that combines software and hardware to create an emergency services request system that's build in to a smartphone such as the iPhone.

Using the iPhone's sensors, the software could detect when the user is in an emergency situation such as a physical attack or car crash and automatically call for help. Users can set a predefined set of contact numbers, or use the iPhone's automatic service to call local 999 numbers. It can also make use of the GPS to detect the location of the user and call the contact that's closest.

To avoid an abundance of 999 calls being placed unnecessarily, the service has a number of modes and measures in place, such as audible timers to alert the user that a call is about to be made.

Apple iPhone 7 patents: Home button joystick

Here's a fun one for iPhone gamers: Apple has filed a patent that covers the idea of a joystick built-in to the Home button.

The patent, which was spotted by Patently Apple in January, describes an iPhone Home button that can pop up thanks to a spring beneath it to become a small joystick perfect for games. Cool, right

Apple iPhone 7 patents: iPhone camera patents

Lots of Apple's iPhone patents relate to the smartphone's camera, some of which we've listed below.

Apple patents: 'Super-resolution' photos

Apple seems to be keen to improve the camera capabilities of its iOS devices, and one patent published by USPTO in May 2014 suggests we could soon see iPhones that are able to capture "Super-resolution" photos thanks to optical image stabilisation, which is already a feature of the iPhone 6 Plus.

The patent describes a system that takes a series of slightly differently angled photographs and then stitches them together to create a higher resolution (or super-resolution, as Apple calls it) photograph.

Apple doesn't suggest that a device would capture every photo this way. Instead, the user would have the option to turn the super resolution mode on, like with HDR and Panorama modes.

There have been several rumours to suggest that Apple plans to introduce a feature like this with its next iPhone, with reports pointing to a "DSLR-quality" capability that would represent the biggest camera jump in iPhone upgrade history.

Apple patents: 3D photographs

iPhones could also soon be able to capture images that appear to be 3D. An Apple patent published in December 2013 describes a method of capturing stereoscopic image data, which can be used make a photograph appear to have depth. Future iPhones could be capable of selecting two suitable photos and combining them to create a stereoscopic image, which replicates the way humans perceive depth to create a 3D illusion.

Apple patents: Interchangeable camera lenses

Apple is also investigating the possibility of making interchangeable iPhone camera lenses.

In January 2014, the company was issued two patents that describe methods of attaching lenses and camera modules to devices such as the iPhone and iPad.

The first patent, titled "Back panel for a portable electronic device with different camera lens options" does pretty much what it says on the tin. It describes a portable electronic device, namely an iPhone, that has a removable case that would allow camera attachments such as wide-angle or fisheye.

The second patent, titled "Magnetic add-on lenses with alignment ridge," offers an alternative method of attaching new camera lenses to the iPhone using magnets.

Apple patents: Refocusable photographs

A patent published by the USPTO in November 2013 reveals that Apple is interested in technology that will allow users to refocus a photograph after it's been taken. Such technology is already used in the Lytro camera, with which you can take a photograph and later choose how you want that photo to be focused.

Some of Apple's rivals including the HTC One M8 have camera features that allow you to achieve similar results, so it's certainly a potential feature for the next iPhone.

Continue onto page 2 to find out what Apple's patents say about future iPads.

What Apple patents say about future iPads

Many of the patents listed above can relate to the iPad too, including the upcoming iPad Air 3 and iPad mini 4. There are some patents in Apple's portfolio that seem particularly suited to tablets, though.

Apple iPad patents: Advanced Sensor UI & the "pull" gesture

Apple seems keen to replace, or at least augment touch screen technology with advanced hand sensing. This will detect hand movements surrounding the device.

Patent 8,514,221 shows that Apple isn't just looking to patent the physical system, but gestures as well. One gesture that is looking to join pinch to zoom, swipe and tap, could be the "pull" gesture. This is where you have your fingers on the screen, and then move them up and away, pulling an object from the screen. What feature this gesture could implement is still in the secret lab, but it will enable an interesting new level of interaction with iOS.

Apple iPad patents: Haptic feedback

Apple hasn't given up on Haptic feedback. What seemed a bit of a buzz technology for other companies a few years ago is still being developed inside the Apple labs. Haptic feedback systems put a low level voltage through a display to recreate the physical sensation of touching buttons on a flat piece of glass.

Apple's U.S. Patent No. 8,378,797 for a "Method and apparatus for localization of haptic feedback" shows that Apple is looking to develop a more accurate haptic feedback system. It is clear that haptics can move far beyond the 'buzzy' screens of older smartphones, and could enable apple to create a virtual home button, and on-screen keys that feel similar to the real thing.

Apple iPad patents: Pressure sensitive display

An additional patent relating to the way we use the iPad describes a pressure sensitive display. USPTO in January published a patent that covers a device such as an iPad with a display that uses built-in pressure sensors to enhance navigation.

The patent, titled "Gesture and touch input detection through force sensing," suggests future iPads could have at least three force sensors beneath the screen.

Apple iPad patents: Vibrate feature

Future iPads could have the vibrate feature built in thanks to an audio codec chip that could allow the iPad to set up vibration alerts for notifications like we can for the iPhone.

What Apple patents say about the future of iOS

iOS 9 is set to be previewed by Apple during WWDC in June, and is likely to arrive on our devices in September. Perhaps these features will come to iOS in a future version of the software.

Apple iOS patents: Clearer contacts in Messages app

Apple hopes to help prevent those embarrassing misdirected text messages with this next patent, which suggests that we could soon see our friends' faces as the background to our conversations in the Messages app.

Apple describes an invention that simply uses the contact's picture as the background image for conversations with that contact. When there's more than one person in a conversation, Apple adds text and multiple images to the conversation.

Apple iOS patents: Driver lock-out

Apple has been granted a patent that relates to the dangerous activity of texting while driving. Apple has invented a lock-out mechanism for drivers, which would prevent drivers from being able to text while behind the wheel.

One embodiment of Apple's invention uses a motion analyser, a scenery analyser and a lock-out mechanism to determine how fast the device is moving (indicating that it's in a car) and where the holder of the device is located (driver's seat or passenger seat). If the device then determines that the holder of the device is also the driver of a vehicle, the lock-out mechanism will disable some functions of the phone, such as the messages app.

Other embodiments involve slight modification of the vehicle itself to send out signals to tell the device to lock-out, which could hint that the technology may come with a future version of CarPlay.

Apple's "Auto-station tuning" patent suggests Apple is looking into the ability to automatically switch between radio stations and TV stations depending on user preferences. This could be used to for iOS devices, but it's possible we could see this technology used in the Apple TV, too.

Apple iOS patents: Transparent text messages

Apple could be planning to introduce transparent text messages with future iPhones or iOS iterations, according to a patent filed in late March 2014.

The system revolves around the background of an application being modified to display a live feed of whatever the rear camera is looking at - creating an effect like the iPhone itself (or at least the portion covered by the screen) is transparent.

The system can be activated via a button inside the app button which then transforms the interface from the regular background to a live video version.

Apple iOS patents: Battery-saving mode

Several of Apple's competitors have already got a battery-saving mode in their devices, but Apple has yet to introduce such feature in iOS. However, that could soon change if patents published in March 2014 are anything to go by.

Apple appears to be investigating a way to save iPhone battery power by learning the user's behaviour. Its patents describe a system that can learn patterns in behaviour to figure out when the user is less likely to be using their device, during which time it can automatically reduce performance and disable some features, for example.

Apple iOS patents: Age-monitoring

As gadgets age, the performance of those gadgets worsens. Apple has acknowledged this in a patent issued in March that aims to help the aging process of a device happen slower, by monitoring the condition of the device and modifying parameters to maximise its performance, battery efficiency and user experience. The aim is to help the device meet its life expectancy.

Continue to page 3 to find out what Apple patents say about the Apple Watch and future Macs.

What Apple patents say about the Apple Watch

Apple's first smartwatch, the Apple Watch, is expected to arrive in April, and is likely to be the first generation of many. Here, we bring you some smartwatch applicable patents that could hint at future wearables from the company.

Apple Watch patents: Heart ID

A patent filed by Apple in 2009 and published in December reveals that Apple is looking into a new way of confirming that you are who you say you are, and we're not talking about the fingerprint sensor that arrived with the iPhone 5s.

Apple has gone further still, suggesting that a heart rate monitor could be built in to a device to not only provide health and fitness tracking capabilities but also the ability to identify or authenticate the user based on the detected signals.

Apple Watch patents: Liquidmetal

In late November 2013, five new Apple patents were published relating to Liquidmetal, a material that Apple has the exclusive license to. So far, Apple has only used Liquidmetal in the iPhone SIM ejector tool, but the new patents suggest that Apple could be working to use Liquidmetal to build iPhones, iPads and also the smartwatches.

Liquidmetal is extremely strong and durable, and therefore can be used in smaller quantities to get the same level of build quality as aluminium. This could mean lighter, thinner devices are on their way from Apple in the future.

Specifically, Apple's patents list many products that could benefit from the use of Liquidmetal, including a telephone (namely, the iPhone), an "electronic email sending/receiving device," a digital display, a TV monitor, an e-reader, an iPad, a computer monitor, a DVD player, a video games console, an iPod, an Apple TV or accessories such as a keyboard, mouse or speaker.

Interestingly, Apple also notes that Liquidmetal can be used in a device such as "a watch or a clock" which could hint that a future Apple Watch that takes advantage of the material.

While we don't expect Apple to launch products made from Liquidmetal just yet due to the struggles that come with manufacturing with the material, it's likely that the future of Apple devices will involve Liquidmetal on a much bigger scale than the current SIM ejector tool!

What Apple patents say about new Macs

Apple Mac patents: Advanced MacBook keyboard

Apple's Mac keyboards could be getting a pretty cool upgrade if a patent spotted at the end of June 2014 is ever put into use. It describes a method of building mini displays into the keys to provide customisable keys and the ability to change the symbols displayed to suit different languages, musical notes or coding functions, for example.

The keys could also offer haptic feedback, including vibration or increased resistance, where applicable.

Apple Mac patents: Wireless mouse/keyboard charging

Future Apple keyboards and mice could be charged wirelessly using a magnetic transmitters and receivers.

Apple has been awarded a patent that aims to create "efficient and friendly interaction between peripheral devices in a wirelessly powered local computing environment," using a wireless near-field magnetic resonance (NFMR) to transmit power to mice, keyboards and other peripherals with built-in magnetic receivers.

Apple Mac patents: Touch-sensitive MacBook chassis

Apple could eliminate the need for some of the physical buttons found on the MacBook using this next patent. It describes a laptop that has a touch-sensitive chassis that would allow Apple to introduce touch input to the bezels of a MacBook for the volume and brightness keys, for example.

Another use described in the patent relates to the ports on the side of the MacBook. A user could touch the USB port, for example, and the MacBook would inform them that it is indeed the USB port they've located by saying "USB" or displaying a USB-related window.

This patent even suggests that squeezing the MacBook chassis could be an alternative method of input. The user could squeeze the left side of the MacBook between their fingers to lower the volume, for example, and the right side to increase the volume.

Apple Mac patents: Touchscreen MacBook

In February 2013, a newly published Apple patent application led to speculation that Apple is working on a touchscreen MacBook.

The patent application clearly states that the advanced 'Integrated Touch' In-Cell display first used in the iPhone 5 could be applied to the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and iMac.

MacBook-iPad Hybrid

Despite Apple CEO Tim Cook's comments that a MacBook and iPad hybrid product would be like combining a fridge and a toaster, Apple has filed a patent for such device.

Apple's patent describes a device that would have a touchscreen display that can be removed from the keyboard and trackpad-equipped base, and can also be rotated when attached to the base.

Additionally, power could be wirelessly transferred from the base component to the detached display.

Apple Mac patents: Solar-powered MacBook

A rather adventurous


Ashleigh Allsopp

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