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Patent Pending: an exploration of Apple’s ideas for the future

Seven features coming soon to a device near you. Maybe.

Apple is notorious for its secrecy, generally keeping new products and services under wraps until their official launch. Even days before the release of a new iPhone – a huge event in itself – the general public usually has nothing but rumors and leaks to go on in terms of new features.

But Apple is also a company that likes to protect its ideas, and usually that means registering a patent years in advance of developing any new technologies. Luckily for us, patents are publicly available, and examining the intellectual property Apple hasn’t yet acted on may give us a hint of what it’s planning for the future.

Or maybe not! Companies file patents all the time and not every idea grows up to become a reality. At the very least, though, a registered patent is a solid indicator that Apple is at the very least interested in a particular field or technology. We’ve taken the liberty of marking each patent with our best guess at the chances it will become real in the near future.

So, without further ado, let’s get stuck in to some of the world’s most profitable company’s most interesting unmade ideas.

Infrared camera

Apple filed this patent way back in 2011, but it’s only just been approved by the U.S. government. The idea is for a system that can transmit and detect data via infrared light, and has caused a bit of a stir in the media recently due to the fact that one of its possible uses is to block iPhone users from using their camera while at a concert or movie screening. While some have praised the thought of attending a show where people concentrate on the live performance rather than holding their phones aloft to film the experience for later, many others are worried about the repercussions of a technology that can remotely disable device features against the user’s will. In reality, if this technology ever saw the light of day it would more likely be used at exhibitions and museums to display additional information about a painting or artifact when the user approaches it.


Likelihood we’ll see this in the future? Probably not. 3/10

Software Home Button

For a while it’s been rumored that Apple would ditch the physical, easily breakable Home button in favor of a software alternative, and this particular patent shows one way of doing it. If a virtual Home button was implemented into a future device, it could be completely flush with the front panel and perhaps even integrate into a larger screen. Using Force Touch technology similar to that already present in recent iPhones, MacBooks and Apple Watches could be used to simulate the sensation of a real button, meaning it would still be possible to easily locate Home with your thumb without looking at what you’re doing.


Likelihood we’ll see this in the future? Maybe next year. 7/10

Fingerprint scanning screen

This patent ties in nicely with the idea of a software Home button, and if we see one we wouldn’t be surprised to see the other implemented at the same time. The idea involves expanding the Touch ID fingerprint-scanning technology from its current spot on the Home Button to the entire screen. Moreover, the display would be able to sense multiple distinct fingerprints at once to tie in with the existing multi-touch technology found in iPhones and iPads. This could in theory mean you could “swipe to unlock” (or any other gesture) anywhere on the screen and it would recognize your prints and let you in without having to touch a specific button. It could also verify payments and downloads automatically without an additional button press. Recent advances made by print-recognition experts CrucialTec mean this one could be feasible sooner rather than later.


Likelihood we’ll see this in the future? Maybe next year. 7/10

Virtual reality headset

Now we’re talking. Apple is rumored to be pretty interested in virtual reality (VR) – a field which is really starting to come to the fore in 2016 with the launch of multiple competing VR headsets. Though Apple wouldn’t dare admit it publicly, the company has made some pretty notable hires and acquisitions over the last year that point towards VR research – including a motion capture firm that worked on Star Wars – and Tim Cook is on record saying he thinks the technology is “really cool.” Add all that to the fact that Apple has even patented its own virtual reality headset, complete with a smartphone-shaped slot to use your iPhone as a screen à la Google Cardboard, and we think this could be yet another in the long line of markets Apple enters late and goes on to dominate.


Likelihood we’ll see this in the future? We sure hope so! 5/10

Pop-out gaming joystick

Here’s a nice idea that could bode well for gamers. This patent covers a multi-functional Home Button that can pop out to be used as an analog joystick. Touchscreen controls aren’t always the best for old-school platform games, and this tilting, pressure-sensing button could improve things dramatically with a similar style to the shallow analog sticks seen on handheld consoles like the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. iPhone gaming fans will just have to hope Apple decides not to ditch that Home button any time soon…


Likelihood we’ll see this in the future? Probably not. 3/10

Waterproof iPhones

There have been a fair few patents relating to waterproofing over the years, and we think it’s only a matter of time until Apple decide to put one of them to use. Several competing smartphones already claim to be waterproof and, though it’s not officially labeled as such, the current generation Apple Watch can survive a dip pretty well too. Several different way to protect the internal circuitry have been patented, from hydrophobic coatings to silicon seals to liquid repellent nano-coating. You never know, with the rumored removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack we may even see some of these waterproofing technologies in action as soon as the iPhone 7…


Likelihood we’ll see this in the future? Almost inevitable. 9/10

Flexible iPhones

Let’s end on a crazy one: a fully flexible iPhone. Based on the patent records, it looks as though Apple has been investigating the possibility of a purposely bendable device for at least three years now. This goes beyond a flexible display – the idea here is for a partially or entirely flexible housing for an electronic device, potentially including hidden hinges in addition to elastomeric materials. It could have predefined “stable configurations” that snap into place, and could include air pockets to optionally stiffen the device into shape. The main draw of this idea – beyond the obvious durability improvements and drop-proofing – is that flexing the device could become a new input method, meaning apps or games could respond to how and when you bend your iPhone.


Likelihood we’ll see this in the future? Pretty unlikely. 2/10

Big thanks to Patently Apple for much of the source material for this article.