Apple Snags Three New Patents for Virtual and Augmented Reality
Apple recently won three new patents for an AR/VR head-mounted display, a temperature gradient sensor, and a smart ring sensor.
Last month, Apple won three new patents on augmented and virtual reality sensors for use in iPhones, MacBooks, and wearables. Reporting on these filings, Patently Apple revealed that these new patents may indicate Apple's upcoming innovations in-air gestures, device cooling technologies, and AR/VR.
AR/VR Crown Sensor
Apple's "digital crown" patent describes a head-mountable device that provides visual information within a user's field of vision. The user can also view the environment outside the digital crown. Such a device can extend smart glass to virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or mixed reality systems.
Illustration of a crown sensor. Image courtesy of Patently Apple
In addition to the display, the crown offers multiple outputs, such as a speaker and haptic feedback. The user can provide tactile inputs and voice commands while the device is attached. The crown provides digital feedback based on the activities it performs. For example, the user can rotate the crown in any direction to control the volume of a speaker, the brightness of the display screen, the visual output of the head-mountable device, the optical settings of an optical subassembly, or other hardware settings.
Block diagram of the device. Image courtesy of USPTO
To achieve these functionalities, the crown includes multiple tracking sensors for facial recognition, eye tracking, user emotion detection, and voice detection.
Two-prong Temperature Gradient Sensing System
In another one of its recent patents, Apple reported a temperature gradient sensing system consisting of a temperature sensor and a differential temperature probe.
The differential temperature probe is a flexible substrate. One of its ends is thermally coupled to a temperature sensor, and the second end is thermally coupled to a surface or a component of the electronic device. The voltage difference between the two ends correlates to the temperature measured by the temperature sensor.
Illustration of the temperature sensing system incorporated inside the Apple Watch. Image courtesy of Patently Apple
The probe can be located near particular components, such as processors, memory devices, and batteries. With this new probe, the two-prong temperature sensing system can keep Apple devices cooler. It can also be placed on an external surface, like the back of a smartwatch, to precisely measure a user's skin temperature for health and fitness monitoring and biometric identification.
Smart Ring System for Mixed Reality Headsets
Apple's ring invention is a sensor-based gesture input system that uses self-mixing interferometry (SMI). SMI is a technique in which a target reflects a light beam into a receiving cavity, causing modulation in amplitude and frequency of the emitted beam. Here, an SMI sensor optically measures the relative motion between the SMI sensor and a target object with sub-wavelength resolution.
Sensors are worn on a user's thumb and index finger to identify gestures such as a pinch, zoom, rotate, and so on. Image courtesy of Patently Apple
The device measures this displacement to determine velocity. Typically, a system like this would require a modulating technique with low latency and distortion. However, relevant modulation techniques like phase modulation are often prone to errors.
In this patent, Apple has considered techniques such as triangular modulation, which works over a limited bandwidth and maintains a good noise rejection and signal distortion performance. The system can track a user's finger movements and identify gestures made with one or more fingers.
What's Next for These Innovations?
These patents indicate Apple's direction for some future features and products. The AR/VR crown and SMI sensor are two ambitious inventions to add mixed reality capabilities to devices. The two-prong temperature sensor will likely be implemented in the next few years to improve temperature control. Apple has yet to release an exact timeline for when these devices will be rolled out.