A clutch of recent Apple patent actions can easily be combined to tease features we may see in this year's iPad 2 and iPhone 5. Better speakers, facial recognition and a way to stick your credit card chips into your iPhone are in the mix.
iPad Speaker, Camera Patents
One of Apple's recent patent applications  tackles one of the iPad's existing criticisms--its speaker performance isn't exactly optimal. That's because while the iPad does have a pair of speakers, notionally good for stereo sound output, they each pour sound through one corner of the device's frame--destroying any stereo effect. It's a necessary sacrifice thanks to the fact the iPad's designed to be used horizontally, vertically or at a random angle. This is what the new patent tackles.
As the more technically minded out there may have guessed, Apple's solution to the problem involves a distributed array of speakers in each corner of the iPad, with on-the-spot re-assignment of left and right audio channels to particular speakers depending on which way up the iPad's held. In this arrangement, your left ear would hear left-channel sound and your right ear the right channel no matter which way round you held the iPad. The patent explains how an array of either three or four speakers would suffice, along with the relevant audio processing chips aboard a future model.
One neat part of the patent is that the device could use smart image recognition--as well as data from the built-in orientation sensor--to work out which way the iPad's being held. There could also be touch recognition input to help the iPad decide how it's being held, and the iPad could try to work out the location where it's being used. As well as suggesting that the device would be very proficient at quick channel-mapping onto speakers, this raises the intriguing possibility that the iPad 2, or 3, could recognize users automatically.
And there's one more neat fact here: The patent explains how tweeter and bass speakers could comprise the multi-speaker array, transforming the iPad into a more serious hi-fi media player. But from what we can see, Apple's suggesting the tweeter speakers could be concealed behind the screen. And since we think we know that the iPad 2  will have a large rear-facing speaker port in one corner (good for bass, which also needn't necessarily be in stereo) we wonder if this is actually how the iPad 2 will have better sound.
iDevice "SIM Tray" For Digital Credit Card Chips
One other hot tech we expect Apple to build into its iPhone (and possibly iPod Touch) for 2011 is near field communication wireless  payment  systems. We know how the radio part of this tech works, and we can make educated guesses about the apps Apple would construct for it along with how it might be secured in software, and to the ID of the phone owner. But what we weren't sure about was how Apple would persuade credit card companies to let it incorporate their security and card number protocols into an iPhone.
Now we have a hint: Another new Apple patent  suggests an iPhone (or iPad, etc) could get a second SIM tray-like port on one side, into which you'd slip the little golden chip segment from a modern credit card. The neatness of this idea is impressive: All the credit card makers need do is slightly modify their existing cards so you could pop-out the chip in the same way you do when you get a new cell phone SIM card delivered (which does come in a credit card-shaped plastic carrier, if you remember). All the security and ID and--more importantly--control over card numbers and distribution to customers--would remain with the card issuer, disrupting their business model less than other solutions would.
It's good for Apple, too, as all the iPhone would have to do would be parse the chip every time the iPhone was waved over a wireless payment pad, and send the signal over a short-range encrypted radio channel, effectively acting as the middleman.
Since we suspect the iPhone 5 will have a similar glass (or possibly ceramic, or plastic) back to the iPhone 4--and this design is nicely radio-transparent for NFC needs--we're wondering if this is exactly how this year's iPhone's NFC credit card tech, or iWallet, may work.
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