updated 08:00 pm EST, Tue January 17, 2012
52 patents published in the last week alone
The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has issued some 52 patents to Apple in the course of the last seven days, including 22 awarded on January 10th, an additional eight awarded on the 12th and a further 22 patents today. One of the most interesting is a "smart garment" patent that may foretell an expansion of the Nike+iPod line, along with a patent that hints at a future Apple TV. Others of note include a longer "trackbar" for notebooks with secondary zones, and what may end up being another Apple attempt at a headset for the iPhone.
The "smart garment" patent was filed in early 2010, long after the original patents for the Nike+iPod sensors were brought to market, though the illustrations do show the shoe sensor as an example of the technology. The patent application lists the possibility of expanding into shirts, pants and jackets, and interestingly also mentions other outdoor activities such as skiing and skating. When combined with the iPhone's ability to measure position, velocity and altitude, some obvious possibilities for expansion of the Nike+ line begin to unfold, some of which have already been explored by third-party companies.
The patent refers to sensors physically affixed to clothing and speaks of "garment usage" and "wear patterns" as additional information that can be detected, for example being able to tell when the garment is actually being warn by measuring for body heat. The sensors could also be used to inform users when the item of clothing (for example a running shoe) has been degraded from peak performance or is at the end of its expected useful life. When or if a more-advanced sensor might come to market is unknown. Robert Borchers and Brett Alten are credited as the inventors.
Another of the patents awarded marks the second time Apple has been granted a patent for Apple TV that references the ability to record TV shows directly from cable. The patent itself covers a menu-organizing technique that can identify and add TV shows recorded from cable (perhaps via an intermediary device such as a PVR) to listings such as those already available that show information and availability of programs from sources such as the iTunes Store. The patent was originally filed in 2006, which could mean that Apple was actively hoping to add such features to Apple TV and was never able to get approval from content providers.
The awarding of the patent could still be useful in either a future Apple TV model or in something like the rumored Apple-branded HDTVs, which would benefit from being able to record shows directly from digital cable. The late Steve Jobs, along with Rainer Brodersen, Rachel Goldeen, Jeffrey Ma and Mihnea Pacuraiu are credited with the invention. Brodersen, Goldeen, Ma and Pacuraiu were the listed inventors of the previous related patent. Several other minor patents awarded recently, including some related to real-time streaming, video codecs and others could also be related to television-based products.
Apple has also been awarded a patent for a revised trackpad that includes two "secondary" zones that extend across the entire width of the notebook, augmented by a screen-mounted sensor that would detect the difference between the zones being used as "palm rests" and being used by fingers. Many of the aspects of the larger trackpad as described in the patent are already in use in the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines with their larger-than-normal trackpads, but other parts describe uses that haven't yet been implemented.
It might make it easier for users, particularly left-handed ones, if the palm-rest area could, for example, be assigned to swiping when just a finger is detected on the palm-rest area. The other hand could remain on the keyboard or in the main trackpad area, effectively changing how far a user could "swipe" or perform other actions that might extend beyond the main trackpad area. The bar could also theoretically detect "hovering" movements, turning the sensor and trackbar combination into a kind of Kinect-like motion detector.
Among the other patents is a recent filing that indicates that Apple may be preparing to have another go at designing a Bluetooth headset intended for the iPhone. The company briefly produced one during the early days of the iPhone that was lauded for its advanced (and subsequently very influential) design but was seen by the market as over-priced and under-powered by comparison with contemporary units. Ironically, the company only just recently won a patent on the original iPhone headset, but the new patent covers an intriguing new feature -- the ability of the headset to detect when it has been removed and thus turn itself off or pause until it is put back on again.
In the new patent, which was filed in May of 2010, the headset idea features modes such as music playing that will automatically pause when the headset is removed, or a "call" mode that automatically switches the call to speakerphone when the headset is removed. Jae Han Lee and Wendell B. Sander are listed as the inventors.
The technique could involve a variation of the proximity sensor found in iPhones that turns off the screen when the unit is pressed against the user's head. Were Apple to combine such a feature and the usual set of modern headset options with its recent Siri voice-command service, a new Apple headset might prove to be more successful in its second iteration.