There are many clues about future Apple products in Apple's patent portfolio. Here, we explore the most exciting Apple patents to see what we can uncover about unreleased products, including the iPhone 7, new iPads, the Apple Watch 2, upcoming Macs and other future tech. What is Apple working on behind the scenes? What can we expect from Apple in the rest of 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. You can follow the links below to skip to a particular product, or sit back and relax while we talk you through the best bits of Apple's entire portfolio.
Also read: Apple rumours and predictions for 2016
Last updated to include information on a patent about photographing/recording at concerts
What Apple patents say about iPhone 6s or iPhone 7
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Solar charging phone
Apple has been committing itself to a greener approach for some time now, and a patent awarded in 2015 demonstrates this strategy in action.
It seems that Apple is planning to build solar cells underneath the new iPhone's touchscreen. The panel would recharge during the day and you wouldn't need to plug your phone into the socket any more. Good for the planet, convenient for us.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: 'Metal look' antenna
Apple has always been keen on style. Its products usually feature a premium appearance - but nobody is perfect.
This, it could be argued, was the case with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, whose metallic backs were disrupted by plastic lines. Those lines are important - they're radio antennae - but a lot of users felt that they spoiled the look of the devices. Well, if one patent is any clue, Apple is trying to put this right.
A new Apple patent describes a material with a metal appearance that would allow wireless signals to pass through. The overall impression would be of a continuous smooth metal surface.
Apple iPhone 7 patents: Viscoelastic material
Apple knows that its users - like all owners of tech products - can at times be very clumsy. That's why it's devising a viscoelastic material that would absorb impacts. The material would cover Apple devices and make them survive drops far better.
This is a patent that could make sense in all of Apple's mobile devices and laptops, but the iPhone is the obvious area to begin.
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: Waterproof components
The next iPhone could be waterproof without sacrificing the design of the famously stylish device. A patent spotted in March reveals that Apple is working to make the internal components of the iPhone waterproof using a protective coating, preventing them from being damaged in the event that liquid manages to make its way beneath the chassis.
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.
Read more: iPhone photography tips
While many patents look to improve the overall iPhone experience, some may not be happy about what Apple's latest patent entails. Modern-day concert goers know the scene too well; your favourite band is performing on-stage at concert but instead of looking around and seeing excited faces, you see a sea of smartphones and tablets recording the experience. Most do it just to show their friends that they were there, and will probably never watch those videos back, and it can be disheartening for artists.
Apple has come up with one idea to stop this from happening - essentially, the concert organiser would be given a device that emits infrared signals to be placed on-stage. That way, whenever an iPhone is pointed at the stage it'd receive the signal which in turn would disable the camera/recording functionality, forcing users to put their phones away and enjoy the moment.
It has other uses too, like preventing bootlegging - you could either stop people from recording altogether, or add some kind of watermark to the videos/pictures so the person recording can't claim it as their personal property.
Apple iPhone camera patents: Light Splitter
Lucky iPhone owners of the future may get their hands on a feature currently offered only by premium video cameras.
In March 2015 Apple was granted a patent for a "digital camera with light splitter". Its project is to create a light splitter system (which for now exists only in high-end video camera) small enough to fit in an iPhone.
If you're not a camera expert, you might be thinking, "What's a light splitter system?" In essence, it consists of a cube that splits received light into three colours: red, green and blue. The cube provides three image sensors, each of which receives one colour component.
In the current iPhone, the camera system is such that its pixels capture the three component colours which end up occupying only a single image sensor; this means that they can fill only one third of the image sensor and the colours of the overall picture are not as accurate as they could be.
The light splitter system would be a big coup for Apple. Its iPhone would be able to get high-quality pictures, with more precise colours, especially if the picture is taken at night.
Apple iPhone camera 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 iPhone camera patents: 3D photographs
iPhones could also soon be able to capture images that appear to be 3D.
On August 2015 Apple was granted a patent that suggests that the company has invented a multispectral imaging process. The system consists of a device built into the iPhone camera that would produce infrared radiation, cast on to the relevant area. An infrared image, reproducing the captured scene in 3D, would then be obtained.
Adding to these hints, Apple recently bought PrimeSense and LiNX Imaging, two forerunners of the 3D photography revolutions. The Cupertino company seems very interested in getting 3D cameras in its phones.
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 iPhone camera 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 iPhone camera 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.
Before we move on, here's a couple of videos in which the Macworld team discuss possible new features, design changes and so on that could appear in the next generation of iPhone: