Apple Patent Watch: iPhone Peripherals, Magnetic Connectors, And Smartphone Flashes

Apple patents stuff all the time. Occasionally they give us a clue as to what may be in the iFirm’s future.


Wireless Chatter Between Devices And Peripherals–A Hint At Apple TV Gaming?


In new patent application number 20120083911, deftly titled “Communicating sensor data between electronic devices” Apple sets out an intriguing little digital chat scenario:

Mobile computing devices, including smartphones, personal digital assistants, and tablet computers, are rapidly becoming ubiquitous. Such devices often include sensors that provide information about the device or its surroundings, such as ambient light sensors, proximity sensors, accelerometers, magnetometers, and so on. […] Some mobile computing devices can also communicate with “accessory” devices, such as speakers and/or video systems that can receive video content from the mobile computing device, remote control devices, and the like.

Wouldn’t it be fab if the first “mobile computing device” could reliably send data about these sensors to the wirelessly attached accessory? Thus Apple muses. The body of the patent is really building on an earlier one and includes complex ways that the first device and the accessory can dynamically handshake to ensure that the sensor data is sent in a controlled way, with throttling to ensure that just enough data is communicated between the two–without clogging up the data channel, or overloading the processing power of the two gizmos. And while it specifically mentions sensor data like ambient light info, and orientation data so you can work out which edge of the device is uppermost, there’s one line that’s very intriguing: “The mobile computing device can, for example, stream media content (e.g. audio and/or video) to the accessory or receive control signals from the accessory to control playback, communication or other operations.” Apple also is careful to not restrict the patent to just a mobile device and a peripheral, meaning it could apply to other pairings like an Apple TV to an iPhone.

So what, exactly is Apple preparing itself for here? A number of things, of course. But among those there are two intriguing possibilities. Firstly there’s the notion that the gyros and digital compass in an iPhone or similar device could be used to send real-time data to a unit like an Apple TV via Apple’s own system–instantly this makes us think of the way iPhones are used as gaming “peripherals” in a few experimental games on the App Store, using Apple’s AirPlay system. Secondly we wonder if this isn’t tied to Apple’s future HDTV plans, which would be based on a novel control system that Steve Jobs seems to have dreamed up after years of thought on the matter. An uber-clever, gesture-aware, voice-transmitting/Siri-input Apple Remote perhaps?

Speculation, for sure, but we’ve long argued that one of the secret long-term benefits of iOS could be the peripherals it could empower–with Nike+ as a simple example, and Apple’s work to include Bluetooth 4.0 as a low-power enabler of the “Internet of things” as another.

Magnetic iPod Cable Replacement?


We bet Apple’s clever MagSafe power connector has saved thousands of potentially Mac-destroying accidents when the trailing power cable was tripped over, and in a more traditional power-plug design would’ve sent the computer crashing to the floor. We also know that the aging iPod dock connector system used for iPhones, iPods, and iPads is definitely due for an overhaul: It’s fiddly, it introduces a large portal to the iDevice through which dust and water can find its way inside, and the way small coins can jam into the slot in one’s pocket is potentially a disaster.

So it’s interesting to see that Apple’s continuing to evolve its patented tech with a newly applied-for and freshly revealed patent to do with a “magnetic connector for an electronic device.” In it Apple sets out how a power/data cable with a magnet may be stuck to a port on a device by an electromagnet, and also shows numerous different ways the connector points may work out. It’s worth pointing out that in the different design sketches Apple shows connectors with different electrical arrangements and also different numbers of connectors, from three to a “plurality” and also describes sensors that can detect if the connection is firmly made or not.

Are we looking at a future magnetic iPod dock cable here? That’d be sweet, and it would definitely make for a better user experience when “docking” one’s iPad or iPhone to charge for the night, or on one’s desk.

Clever iPhone Flash

Apple was just awarded an interesting little patent that shows it’s very keen to develop the photography powers of its iDevices (now incredibly commonly used instead of dedicated compact cameras), particularly in low-light conditions. In the “Electronic device having a camera flash redirector” patent, Apple describes a device that can sense the different parameters of the scene it’s looking at, including brightness and contrast conditions, and, sensitive to user requests, can actually point the bright illumination from a flash light at specific parts of the scene.


This could eliminate that awful “washed-out” look you get with using a flash at night. In its simplest form it could work like the best professional flashes, adjusting from narrow focus to wide beam as the photographer zooms the lens. Or it could actually work to shine a little light on say, a person’s face, while leaving the rest of the scene moodily dark. There’s also the benefit of power saving here, since flashes burn a lot of battery power and a “smart” flash like this could consume much less energy.

The upshot: Expect your iPhone X in 2015 to have photographic powers as good as or better than your dedicated camera can today. Nokia’s PureView isn’t the only way to improve smartphone pics.

That Tiny SIM Card Tray

Apple’s in a huge if slightly weird fight with several entrenched mobile phone makers over a new standard for even smaller SIM cards than the microSIM the current iPhone and iPad use. Good for Apple then that in a patent application just published, but filed in 2010, it sets out the specifics of a “mini” SIM tray that would marry up to its proposed design, including preventing accidental insertion of the tiny sliver of electronics the wrong way round.


Apple’s going to fight Nokia et al. on this one, it seems

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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!)