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iPatents: A Look at the Possible Future of Apple Devices

By: Rebeca Echevarria *

In the dark recesses of the Apple patent dungeons, there lie many ideas that will likely never see the light of day, but it is from those crypts that Apple pulls the spectacular features to include in products. Apple’s recent patent applications are in no way a guarantee of what we will see in the next generation of Apple products, but they can certainly shed some light on where Apple is headed.

Since the first iPod, Apple has maintained the 30-pin standard for charging and data transfer on most of its devices. That is why many of us wept to see that our many glorious Apple accessories, which are on the legacy 30-pin standard, are now incompatible with the iPhone 5’s much smaller lightning pin standard.

At least there is a 30-pin to lightning adapter for purchase, but when rumors began circulating that Apple wishes to move to wireless inductive charging soon, users began to worry that all of the accessories and hardware purchased over the years to supplement those iPhones and iPods would become completely obsolete. Worry not! On October 2, Apple was awarded a patent for a wireless adapter, which makes wireless charging and data transfer for Apple products on either the 30-pin or lightning standard a likely possibility in the near future. As Apple looks towards the inductive charging technology originally seen in the Nokia Lumia 920, we can breathe a sigh of relief and dry our tears; the creative minds at Apple have not forgotten us and our years as loyal customers. Backwards compatibility with previous Apple products is on its mind and I expect to see wireless charging in future Apple products.

On the same day Apple was awarded its wireless adapter patent, it won a patent for a new Home button design. This patent’s description not only suggests that there could be screen orientation locking in future Apple devices, but the patent also included two more buttons to the iPhone design. Apple’s philosophy for using only a single Home button has always been to make its devices as easy and intuitive to use as possible, but I wouldn’t worry that Apple has abandoned that concept. As iPhones and iPod touches have quickly risen to be the primary handheld gaming methods in today’s market, it is likely that the extra buttons would offer new gaming functions.

On October 4, several more exciting Apple patent applications appeared at the U.S. patent and Trademark office, but the truly exciting application is for a new “flexible display”. This technology is not entirely new, but it hasn’t yet been implemented in devices and the applicable possibilities have long only been in the theoretical zone. A flexible display would allow for a screen that could literally change its shape.

Flexible displays could make tactile keyboards — keyboards that essentially lift off the surface to meet your fingers—a reality. This means that users could have the feel of actual keys underneath their fingertips without having any permanent key structures on the device. The application also suggests that the design’s purpose could be to include laser microphones.

Laser microphones register sound without requiring any physical openings in a device. A laser microphone could cross the threshold of a flexible glass display to pick up and play back sound, without the need of external speakers, reducing the points of vulnerability on a device.

Additionally, Apple has applied for a wireless earbud patent, allowing users to listen to music wirelessly. By incorporating wireless data transmission, similar to Bluetooth technology already used by LG and Jabra, users could simultaneously workout and listen to their favorite tunes without the worry of tangling wires. This concept is not a new one, but unlike previous uses of this technology, Apple’s applications call for earbuds that would wirelessly connect to a device to both receive audio content and charge the earbuds.

Put all of Apple’s patent applications together and you begin to get a picture of a device with no points of vulnerability. Wireless earbuds, inductive charging, and laser microphones could mean a solid Apple device with no holes for water or dirt to enter. It is possible none of these patents will be incorporated into any future Apple products, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they all come together to make the next superphone as invincible as that name suggests.

* Rebeca Echevarria is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, International Relations, and Biomedical Ethics from Mount Holyoke College. Upon graduation in May 2014, Miss Echevarria intends to practice Intellectual Property and Biotechnology law.