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Apple Headphone, Camera Patents Reveal Obsession With Design Details

Apple patents things all the time, but two new ideas for headphone sockets and camera flashes demonstrate exactly how much attention Apple pays to the small details of its product design.

Apple patent

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Apple patents things all the time, but two new ideas for headphone sockets and camera flashes demonstrate exactly how much attention Apple pays to the small details of its product design.

Apple’s U.S. patent application for “Audio Jack with Pogo Pins for Conductive Contacts” has been revealed this week, and it represents what, at first, seems a simple redesign of the way headphone sockets actually tap in to the electrical contacts of a headphone plug. An obscure corner of product design, you may think.

But you’d be wrong: Apple’s beef is with the existing leaf-spring contact system, which is bulky due to the restrictions of the physical form of the connector itself. Basically, the complex plastic restraints and springy contacts themselves mean you can’t easily choose the size and shape of the socket. And that means you have limitations on the format of the audio device you’re building, including device thickness and placement of the socket on the motherboard.

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So Apple’s proposed a Pogo-plug solution instead, with tiny needle-like cylindrical contacts that can be more cleverly engineered to fit restrictive space requirements, while still delivering good electrical connections. The upshot: thinner Apple devices, with a freer choice over where on the device the headphone socket can be situated. It’s all about aesthetics with this.

Meanwhile, Apple’s other patent in the news this week concerns the tricky problem of flash photography from portable devices. Apple’s only just delved into this tech, with the LED light on the iPhone 4, but the patent is designed to tackle a well-known problem of flash illumination and zoom photography. Basically a zoom lens allows you to select which portion of a scene you want to center in on in detail, but if the scene is dim enough to warrant a flash light, you’re stuck with the fixed wide-area illumination of the built-in flash–which may not be ideal. In SLR camera flashes, it’s possible to zoom the flash lenses themselves, but space restrictions inside a device like a phone make this tricky.

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Apple’s solution involves some clever image processing, so the camera itself looks at the scene and then cleverly steers and controls multiple tiny flash light elements, each of which is more directional than a typical LED flash, to optimize the illumination.

The attention to detail Apple’s demonstrating here in its design thinking is astonishing–it’s not content in purchasing bulk pre-designed circuit-board components, and simple “good enough” camera flash units, but may be aiming at optimizing everything about the iPhone experience.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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