Missing the magic in Apple product announcements? Nine Apple patents show what could be ahead

By Jackie Snow and Christopher Mims
Originally published on September 26, 2012 on Quartz

Critics bashed Apple for adding little revolutionary or unexpected to the iPhone 5 released on Sept. 21. They yearned for the days when Steve Jobs thrilled consumers with surprising new features, or at least remarkably polished version of competitors’ existing products.

Quartz dug into Apple’s US patents to look at unreleased technology the company could tap to bring some magic to its future product releases. It’s difficult to know what the secretive company has in the works (it didn’t respond to our request for comment for this article), but here are nine potential candidates for features to restore any wavering of the Apple faithful.

1. The 3D interface

Apple patented a three-dimensional display system that would create “pseudo-holographic” projections in November 2010. Leagues beyond the flimsy 3D glasses you wear to movies, Apple’s patent outlines a holographic system that can track multiple sets of eyes and create a different 3D image for each viewer. The projection would adjust itself if the viewer moved and would even be able to recognize users who are in range but aren’t actively looking, and so can be ignored. No glasses are needed. A possible future gee-whiz feature for Apple TV, perhaps.

2. The 3D Desktop

The 3D desktop has a lot in common with with the hologram patent, including face recognition, but is for computers. Three-dimensional file browsing, gaming, and (yikes) spreadsheets would be the biggest upgrade to the graphical user interface since its invention in 1973. Nor would it be limited to your laptop: the patent specifies that it’s for both the Mac OS and the iOS used on iPhones and iPads.

3. Apple TV

Jobs told Isaacson that he wanted to create “an integrated television set that is completely easy to use.” Even if 3D television sounds like a pipe-dream, Apple got a dozen patents in Aug. 2012 that hint at more prosaic Apple TV upgrades. The most notable would allow for live viewing. Currently, Apple TV is limited to iTunes rentals, Hulu, Netflix and similar web-based sources, meaning you need a separate non-Apple box to watch cable TV. That could change with a patent originally filed in 2006.  Diagrams in the patent have television shows from NBC, HBO and CBS with a new menu that looks a lot like the docks used in Apple’s desktop OS. The record option shown in the drawings would also allow Apple TV to function like a digital video recorder, or DVR.

4. Haptics

Game controllers that vibrate are already common for devices such as Nintendo’s Wii. But Apple has a series of haptic patents that could take things to the next level. Localized feedback could create the illusion that buttons are springing up from the surface of a flat phone. Virtual keyboards would be more like their physical counterparts. It’s even possible that our brain could be fooled into believing that we’re running our fingers along the edges of photos or other interface elements. iPhones have already empowered the blind and haptics would only make them more accessible. Further into the future, it’s possible Apple could apply research from the University of Tokyo that would add touch to holograms.

5. Fingerprint Scanning

This is the only patent acquisition on this list. In July, Apple paid $356 million for the security company AuthenTec and control of its stable of patents. In an SEC regulatory filing around the deal, Apple stated its interest in “commercialization of 2D fingerprint sensors.” One potential application is obvious: when you grab your phone, its screen or back instantly recognizes your hand, and refuses to unlock for anyone else.

6.  Fuel Cells

Battery technology is a core factor limiting Apple’s ability to further compress the size of its devices, increase the power of their computer brains, and extend a user’s range between each charge. Apple could pursue a solution using fuel cells, which can pack a lot more power into less space than traditional lithium-ion technology. So far, fuel cells are too big and too expensive, suitable only for large scale applications such as cargo ships. One Apple patent describes a fuel cell small enough to fit inside compact portable devices, supplying power for “days or even weeks without refueling.” Apple has another patent that outlines a symbiotic relationship between a fuel cell and a traditional battery. The two would be able to power each other, though this would not completely eliminate the need for refueling.

7. User-generated battery power

Getting users to shake their devices is another possible way to boost battery life. Apple’s patent for an electromagnetic induction system describes converting the usual jostling of a device into usable energy. Power generation using electromagnetic induction is usually too bulky or only able to provide enough charge for something like a quartz watch. Apple’s patent sketches show printed coils small and powerful enough to keep mobile gadgets powered.

Dual Sided Track Pad

8. Dual-sided track pad

For cell phone users who remember flip-phones fondly, Apple patent filings published in Sept. 2012 hold promise of a revival. A patent outlines a touch-sensitive device made up of a screen and track pad controller capable of folding. The track pad portion could go translucent and the display could be seen even when the device is closed. The patent doesn’t limit itself to track pads, and outlines multiple configurations of touchscreens and keyboards, depending on the use.

 9. Location-based disabling

This patent should at least get concert promoters and film executives salivating. It spells out technology that could detect where a phone is and disable certain functions on it. The technology could silence ringing phones in movie theaters, and prevent recording of movie screenings or concerts. It relates to a broader trend in context-based features on mobile devices, which involves using every sensor on a phone to determine its actions. Location, time of day, or even ambient temperature could be used to change a device’s behavior.