Apple Patent Patrol: Magnets, Cameras, iPad Stands, And More

It's been very busy in the weird and wonderful world of Apple patents recently. This means something.

Apple patents a lot of its ideas, all the time: Some of the ideas end up in devices almost as soon as we learn about the patents, some take years, some never surface. This means looking at Apple's patenting activity and trying to interpret it is a very hit-and-miss affair, but over the last week or so there's been a lot of fuss over what seems to be a definite cluster of Apple-related patents. So here's our take on them all.

Smart Stylus


Several European patent filings may be among the most interesting and strange of recent Apple efforts, because they're all about styluses—the digital writing tool that Steve Jobs famously ridiculed when he first introduced the iPhone.

Apple's ideas begin with a smart stylus that can cleverly detect the relative orientation of a stylus and the touch screen it's interacting with, in order to change something like the width of a line being painted or drawn on the screen. There's also an even smarter stylus idea which includes chips—so that by clicking the stylus on, it could tell a device like an iPad to automatically open your favorite writing app. Apple's also looked at as an intelligent stylus that can be used as a "key" to unlock a device with a gesture, and a different one that at a touch could switch from stylus mode to barcode scanning mode.

There's a lot of thinking in all this design, and also a delicious reference back into writing history—where styli and tablets were among the earliest ways of recording and moving figures and text around for discussion or education.

Do you love these ideas? Or do you hate it when you lose your device's styli?

Situational Awareness





A couple of U.S. patents awarded to Apple may be part of Apple's plans to make iPhones and iPads a little more intelligent, possibly even adding to Siri's smarts. The first patent was originally intended to apply to iPods, but has been amended to include devices like the iPhone and iPad—and it's all about making them aware of what their user's up to. This means future devices may know you've arrived at the office, and thus would automatically switch to vibrate only alerts... or an iPhone could be triggered to do something like play a tune when you arrive home. Hackers have been tweaking unlocked iPhones to do this for a while.

Separately Apple's also won a patent that would let an iPhone share locational or situational awareness data with an ancillary device—which could be your car's entertainment unit. But this patent is also being seen as perfect for an iWatch device, because it means a connected iPhone in a user's pocket or bag could easily share data with a smartwatch to perform similar location-aware stunts.

Do you think this makes an iWatch more plausible?

The Magnetic Attraction Of iPads


We know Apple's already making some seriously clever uses of tiny rare earth magnets in its iDevices, but a new filing has shown the company has even bigger ideas that may unsettle some accessory makers. The notion is that by amping up the magnets in an iPad, or including magnets in a stand, one could create intelligent musician's stands, or a neat way to quickly attach an iPhone to a treadmill in a gym or even to the windshield of your car.

Interestingly, Apple also shows how this system could connect two iPads together to act as a big dual-screen e-reading device, with content intelligently shared across the two displays. This is something that may appeal to educational markets, and was part of the original idea behind the failed Kno tablet.

Would you latch your iPad to your car's windshield? Do you love the idea of just slapping your phone magnetically onto a kitchen cabinet?

Making Magnets


Some of Apple's surprising patents include processes you may imagine it wouldn't care about, such as a new one about the precise machining of small rare earth magnets. The idea is to use wire saws to speed up the process where a large block of magnetic material is sawn up into useful smaller chunks. Apple's patents for the production of all-aluminum unibody devices were pivotal for its recent iPhone and Mac designs, so it's possible Apple really intends to use this technology.

Could these patents help Apple protect its business by locking down the manufacturing process?

Better Camera Actions


One of the flaws with cameras on smartphones is that the devices have to be slightly performance-limited due to size and processing-power constraints, and one way this affects users is when they try to record a video while moving the device rapidly around. Now Apple's applied for a new patent that solves this "rolling shutter"-related problem by detecting movements via a device's accelerometers, and then processing the video feed to account for the motion.

Since this is a relatively easy technology to implement, largely in software, we wouldn't be surprised to see this in use in Apple's devices sooner rather than later. After all, if Nokia can try to sell its devices on the strength of imaging power, Apple can try this, too.

Have you ever chosen a smartphone on the strength of its imaging systems alone?

Camera Privacy





If you've ever been concerned that the webcam on your phone or computer may be used to spy on you, Apple's new patent filing will please you: It's for a privacy shield that would actually be built into a camera. The idea is that you could switch on an opaque blocker over the imaging device, directly stopping image transmissions. Fascinatingly the patent mentions how this could work in a smart television, which is sensible given that such a camera would be staring at your living room 24-7-365.

Are webcam privacy worries just a fleeting thing, till we all get used to the tech?

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter or Google, and check out Fast Company, too.

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