The next iPhone could be the center of a sophisticated in-car navigation system, if a recently revealed Apple patent is taken to logical extremes. We've mentioned Apple's extensive patenting of GPS technology before, but that's mainly covered how the software will work. This time GPS hardware is outlined, and the main focus of the new tech is driver safety.
GPS units have radically reshaped both personal and vehicular navigation, even though the technology isn't without its pitfalls. There have been countless reports of "user IQ failures" where 100% dumb reliance on GPS has ended up in disaster—including this one today. It's really hard to mitigate against that kind of error, but that's not where Apple's safety concerns lie.
Instead, the technology is designed to minimize driver distraction, by turning off key components of the unit when the vehicle is moving. It'll be able to do so through a number of sensors. These wired or wirelessly-connected sensors could monitor the tires, the engine, parking brake or simply use GPS data to detect if the car's in motion. If it is, the touchscreen would be turned off.
But not completely. The patent describes how a passenger could still operate the touchscreen. To do so the unit would have to know the passenger was touching it, necessitating a bunch of other sensing tech. The task could be achieved with voice, weight, or seat belt sensors, infrared cameras to detect a person, or proximity sensors. Furthermore, the "angle of approach" of a hand could determine who's touching the screen. And there's also the mention of biometric sensors that enable or disable the screen lockdown based on user ID—achieved via iris recognition, fingerprint recognition or voice recognition.
All very groovy. But why does this point the way to future iPhone upgrades? Because a patent tries a scattergun approach to cover all the bases of the tech that may be used. The iPhone already has a basic proximity sensor to detect if it's being held to your ear, and has a sensitive touchscreen. An augmented sensor suite, with new front-facing camera, IR sensors or advanced screen to enable some of the options mentioned in the patent is very possible. There's also mention in the patent of "functions such as text messaging, mobile device, browsing, and such, based on biometrics, vehicle movement, proximity, and the like," and suggestions that a camera embedded in the system could be used, when it's dismounted, for "standard camera functions, such as recording photographs and video clips."
This looks like a patent for an Apple GPS system, possibly even an in-car one. But to suggest Apple would launch a separate gadget is absurd, considering 80% of the tech's already in the iPhone. Some of these plans could be achieved with the enhanced peripherals possible with iPhone 3.0 firmware. But some of it could be easily achieved with an enhanced iPhone. And since Apple's becoming the king of seamlessly combining different technologies into one device, that's what I'm putting my money on.