It’s only been a week since Apple released the iPhone 5 to its adoring public, but gearheads are already looking forward to what new technologies and features the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer company might unveil in next year’s smartphone model, presumably called “iPhone 6.”
A newly released patent, filed in March but published on Thursday, describes a handful of new technologies currently being cooked up in Apple’s research & development labs for new iDevices, including tactile keyboards, laser microphones and speakers, and flexible displays.
All of these new features would reportedly work in tandem to give users a dynamic iPhone experience that conforms to the user’s needs: Flexible displays allow for easier holding and typing, while the highly-advanced tactile screen would create buttons when needed so the user can feel the letters as they type, or touch the topography on an Apple map.
Wireless technology blog Unwired View had a chance to break down some of the elements in Apple’s newly published patent application, and described how the tactile display would work:
“By placing an array of piezoelectric actuators below the display and activating them on demand for tactile feedback… this way you have a perfectly smooth surface when you browse the net or read your email," wrote Unwired View's Stasys Bielinis. "Call up a keyboard, [and] actuators pop up and now you can feel the letters as you type."
Tactile display technology, which is useful for using your device without looking at it, has been something Apple has long been interested in: On May 7, Apple published a patent for advanced haptics using a flexible OLED screen, which would allow users to physically interact with their content by touching it – an experience accomplished with sensors and actuators working simultaneously.
Apple's multi-tiered system is extremely sophisticated: Using several layers of elastic screens stacked on top of each other, Apple's screen can produce 3D buttons or objects to interact with, as well as give texture to images, like topographical maps, but only when they're needed. This technology is currently being explored by another company, Tactus Technology, which created a video to explain how it all works.
Similar to Tactus' work, Apple's haptic system can respond to and create different types of actions, including vibration, net displacement, bending, deforming, or any combination of those elements. The technology can also work with a secondary display screen or audio system, which would be useful if Apple ever builds its iTV, but the system can also be applied to flexible organic light emitting diode, or OLED, screens. This advanced haptics system would also work with almost every portable Apple device, including iPhones, iPod Touch devices, iPads, MacBooks, and even TVs, video projectors and e-Ink displays.
But one of the great features about this flexible display technology is its ability to contain other internal components between the layers of the screen, such as a laser microphone or pressure sensor that, according to the patent filing, “receives sound or pressure information through the flexible display,” which can be temporarily or permanently deformed to provide tactile feedback to the device’s owner.
Unwired View also points out that since the display would be flexible, it could dynamically react to different sound vibrations as you speak, so Apple could potentially remove the traditional microphone holes and implant the sound technology within the screen to capture those sound vibrations.
In addition to sensing sound vibrations, the flexible screen would also be able to house components to generate sound waves as well. With a simple transducer behind the screen to transform electric current into vibrations, as long as the structure gets some barrier support, part of the screen can become a speaker membrane for surround sound. In other words, Apple could potentially implant different display based speakers for woofers, subwoofers, tweeters, supertweeters and mid-range speakers all right into that flexible screen.
While flexible screens, advanced haptics and microphone and speaker systems built directly into the display, whatever iDevice these technologies are intended for – hopefully next year’s iPhone 6 – looks to be a real powerhouse of new and exciting software technology.
However, these are just a few of the features we’re expecting in the iPhone 6, the seventh-generation smartphone expected to launch in Q3 or Q4 next year. There were a number of software features we were expecting for this year’s iPhone 5, but didn’t make into the final design; however, based off the multitude of rumors and patent filings about these technologies, it’s completely possible that these will be future features in an upcoming Apple device. Here’s what we’re looking forward to:
Crack-Proof Glass: Everyone who's ever had a rough Saturday night would certainly love this patent. Granted on Nov. 15, Apple's patent for crack-resistant glass uses the same alumino silicate glass solution used in the iPhone 4 and 4S, but chemically treats it with potassium and sodium ions to achieve greater compression thresholds on the surface and edges of the glass, making it less susceptible to cracks.
Apple's patent also includes a handy feature that would appeal to everyone who's ever dropped their iPhone on a Saturday night: The patent calls for a shock mount to be placed between the glass and the body of the device, which will instantly inflate if the device senses it's falling. If the iPhone's internal accelerometer senses it's falling, an actuator within the device sucks in the cover glass as it accelerates to the ground, protecting it from damage.
NFC: The big kahuna of features, the near-field communication (NFC) chip which was long-rumored to be in the iPhone 5 until the final weeks leading up to the event, in which teardowns of new iPhone prototypes found no such chip. However, we were really hoping it'd be there for so many reasons.
NFC is nothing new -- in fact, many current smartphones have the chip built-in so owners can use mobile payments solutions such as Square and Google Pay -- but Apple had a chance to implant and popularize the technology in a landmark device. A slew of recently granted patents seemed to suggest that Apple would introduce the NFC chip in the near future, but it just was not meant to be in the iPhone 5.
iWallet: Apple won a major patent on March 6 for a piece of technology called the "iWallet," which is a digital system that gives users complete control over their subsidiary financial accounts on their iPhones, and also leverages Near-Field Communication technology to complete credit card transactions directly on the phone as well. The iWallet has many different features, including giving users the ability to see their entire credit card profiles, view statements and messages from their banks, and even set parental controls for their children, should they also want to use their iPhones as digital wallets. Outside of the iPhone, users can keep track of their payments and statements within the iTunes billing system, which keeps credit card information and records safe and secure. There's a possibility that iWallet could also work with other Apple utilities, which could allow users to buy things like movie tickets directly within the apps, but only time will tell with that one.
iTunes Gifts: Another Apple patent unveiled in April described a system for standardized buying, sending, and receiving of media files from a media provider (iTunes) between multiple devices (iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touchs). The process was simply called, "Gifting," and it would certainly work with an NFC-capable iPhone.
Downloading and storing digital media with online service providers has become commonplace -- more so than purchasing DVDs and CDs at physical stores -- but it's not very easy to transfer digital files from one individual to another, usually because of copyright laws. Apple believes "Gifting" is the solution.
One method for gifting requires the sender to authorize a gift charge to their iTunes account, which is then transmitted from the sender's device to the receiver's device -- via tapping, or as long as they're nearby -- thanks to the NFC chip. If the recipient of the gift isn't nearby -- or you want it to be a surprise -- the gift-giver may submit an official request with iTunes, which then processes the request and charges the initiator's account for the given file. The patent also allows for multiple gifts to be sent in a single transaction, as well as certain customization options for the gifts -- including voice greetings and custom gift images, likely to conceal the gift's identity before the recipient opens it.
Audio Sharing Network: The last few months have seen Apple pay increasing attention to audio. It spun off its Podcast application as a completely separate application from the "iPod" app, it released its new EarPods with a superior speaker system, and now, according to a newly-filed patent for the iPhone, Apple plans to make the iPhone into a "conference telephone," designed to cut out the background noise while recording audio, which can then be packaged and distributed. This feature would certainly appeal to students that want to record their lectures, as well as enterprise professionals that want to hold and record teleconferences with multiple individuals and be able to hear everyone clearly.
The Shopping Companion: In 2010, Apple was granted a patent for an NFC-enabled application called "Products +," which packages and tags merchandise or products sold by vendors to learn more information about the product itself, as well as win "hidden benefits" like free merchandise or free music, or any kind of reward for that matter.
"The iPhone's camera may be used to obtain a digital image of a matrix barcode tag," Patently Apple said. "The iPhone may thereafter employ optical character recognition (OCR) software, barcode-reading software, or matrix-code-reading software to extract information from an image as discussed later in the report."
For example, if a vendor like Starbuck's or Tim Horton's used a barcode on the outside of their paper cups, iPhone users could scan the tags with their NFC-enabled iPhones and read nutrition information, advertisements related for related products, or ways to win free music or discounted food or drinks. The NFC chip could even be used to identify the song playing in the restaurant so you can purchase it. Read more about the incredible ways NFC could benefit the shopping experience here.
3D Photography. It's possible the iPhone 5 could allow users to finally snap 3D images with their phones. While existing 3D cameras and video recorders gather three-dimensional information from objects, they're generally incapable of getting detailed enough information in relation to the shapes, surfaces and depth of the objects. Apple's patented solution involves a series of systems, tools and methods to capture a 3D image by using multiple sensors and cameras. One sensor would capture a polarizing image, while two other sensors would capture two different non-polarizing images, and Apple's system would combine the images into a composite.
The Photographer's Timer. Traditionally, self-timing cameras are used to take pictures of a big group, or a self-portrait. But in Apple's self-timer, a patent granted March 8, the iDevice's camera can identify the photographer and ask if they want to be in the picture. At that point, the iPhone will simply wait until it detects the photographer's face in the viewfinder before it automatically snaps a photo. If you are the "photographer" who also wants to be in the picture, the iPhone will simply wait until it detects your face to take the picture.
"But what about interruptions? What happens if I get a call after I set the self-timer?" Wonder no more. If you set the timer and then your phone goes off, the timer will still wait until it has detected, recognized and verified that you are the photographer and that you're in place for the photo. Now if only Apple patented a tripod ...
Apple Avatars. If you want to buy movies, apps, or any content through Apple's iTunes Store or App Store, Apple requires you have an Apple ID. Your Apple ID sticks with you in the company's Game Center, which keeps track of a user's achievements across purchased and downloaded games. But if this recently-granted patent has any bearing on the immediate future, Apple users may soon get to make customizable Apple Avatars, which users would use to represent themselves within potential online or gaming environments. Apple users could create a 3D model of themselves, customizing features like hair, eyes, nose, and eyebrows, as well as other features and accessories. While avatars seem to be geared towards kids, it would actually help give users a source of identity while making the Apple brand -- and identification procedures -- a little more fun. Don't be surprised if Apple had Pixar's help on this one: Just look at the eyes.
3D Object Recognition. On May 10, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a series of Apple patentsrelating to 3D face and object recognition technology. Apple's system involves taking a picture -- either with a front or rear camera -- and the 3D recognition software would distinguish between the two-dimensional projection of the image and the three-dimensional shape of the objects in the image. The process would be fully automatic, which would help for identifying faces in a group of objects, or even identifying objects in X-ray images.
Which of these features are you most excited for? Would you trade in your iPhone 4, 4S, or 5 for a phone with some or all of these exciting features? Let us know in the comments section below.