There are many, many clues about future products in Apple's patent portfolio. Here, we explore them to see what we can uncover about unreleased products like the iWatch, iPhone 6 and Apple television.
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 famous for its patents, they are detailed but often try to disguise product plans in detailed technicality. There are also a lot of patents created to protect Apple’s design, including ones for rounded corners, rectangular products, square icons and double-tapping the screen. These are mostly part of Apple’s ongoing battle with Samsung to stop it from copying its products.
However many Apple patents outline fascinating technologies that the company is working on or is interested in, and show the direction its products will 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 (Updated 11 December).
Apple has been awarded a new patent by USPTO that covers a head mounted display that would work in a similar way to the Oculus Rift rather than the Google Glass, allowing users to play immersive games wearing the goggles. With two adjustable screens, the Apple goggles can be aligned with your eyes and adjusted for those who wear glasses.
Further still, the patent suggests that the goggles could identify users by tracking eyeballs, voice and fingerprints.
iPhone with curved display
After lots of speculation about the display of the iPhone 6, including the suggestion that the next iPhone will have a bigger, curved screen, an Apple patent has been awarded to Apple for the method of manufacturing curved touchscreens.
Apple's "Curved touch sensor" patent describes a method of forming a curved touch surface, that could be used in future iOS devices.
Siri Smart Dock
An intriguing patent filed by Apple describes a "smart dock" that would always be listening for spoken commands. Ideal for use with Siri, the "smart dock for activating a voice recognition modes of a portable electronic device" patent covers an accessory that could include a speaker, microphone and built-in screen as well as the ability to integrate Siri into your home.
When an iPad or iPhone is paired with the unit, Siri would constantly listen out for prompts, such as play a song or skip, for example.
3D iPhone photos
iPhones could soon be able to capture images that appear to be 3D. An Apple patent published in December 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.
Facial recognition tech to unlock future iPhones
In December, USPTO awarded Apple a patent relating to a "personal computing device control using face detection and recognition."
With the iPhone 5s, you can unlock the device using just your fingerprint, but with this patent, future iPhones could be unlocked using facial recognition. So effectively, your face could soon become your password.
Apple iPhone camera tech lets users refocus photos
A patent published by the USPTO on 26 November 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.
However, Apple's patent describes a way to make the Lytro (which is a rather large device) fit within an iPhone. This is likely to be a tricky feat, so it's likely that such technology won't be included in Apple's next iPhone, but perhaps in a few years time we'll all have refocusable images in our Camera Roll.
Advanced Touch ID fingerprint sensor use
A mammoth 612-page patent application filed by Apple in May 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.
In the patent, Apple 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.
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.
Liquidmetal iPhone, iPad, Mac
In late November, 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 more.
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 the rumoured iWatch will be made with Liquidmetal.
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!
Haptics and Tactile
Apple hasn’t given up on Haptic feedback. No siree! 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.
Finger scanning screen
Apple’s iPhone 5S finger scanner is big news at the moment. But back in Jan 2013 Apple issued Patent 20130181949 that outlined a method for including the finger scanner into a display. 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.
GRIN Camera Technology
While this doesn’t seem as quirky as some of the other patents, the news that Apple is working on a GRIN camera for the iPhone means that it’ll be able to create much thinner devices with better cameras. The camera is one of the key items that determines the width of the iPhone, and is the reason why the camera on the iPhone is typically better than the one on the thinner iPod touch.
Thinner cameras mean thinner devices, and Patent US20130208169 A1 outlines a camera system using the Super Advanced Gradient Refractive Index Optics (GRIN). The cutely named GRIN camera bends light before it hits the camera lens, so the lens can be much thinner.
Solar charging iPhone, MacBook accessory
Apple's future portable devices could benefit from a portable solar panel accessory that Apple appears to be investigating. A patent published by the US Patent & Trademark Office in October 2013 describes a power management system that would provide energy for an iOS device or MacBook until the battery is fully charged.
Apple is certainly interested in solar power. The majority of power generated at its iCloud data center in North Carolina is generated from on-site solar panels that could power 17,600 homes for a year, according to Reuters. Just this week, Apple has announced plans to build a components plant in Arizona that will run entirely on renewable energy, inclusing solar energy.