In the future, as described by Apple’s patents, your MacBook could have a second screen instead of a keyboard, your self-driving car could navigate using virtual environments mapped in real time, while your Apple Watch monitors your blood flow for early signs of heart disease.
A dual-screen computer isn’t a new idea – Lenovo’s 2016 Yoga Book is exactly that, and the world and their dog own a Nintendo 3DS. However, Apple’s cache of patents for use in a dual-screen device include a range of quality-of-life improvements that could provide a better and more tactile experience than attempting to tap out words on an unresponsive screen.
Patently Apple reports patent applications for more realistic touch responses when using a second screen as an input device, as well as force sensors that would allow the device to respond in different ways depending on how much pressure was used to touch the screen. It would also make sense for the company to use its rather secretively patented technology for a haptic feedback system capable of delivering multiple tactile outputs, which would allow users to feel feedback from multiple keypresses.
James Gaskell of IFI Claims tells WIRED that, since 2001, Apple Inc. has made a total of 17,627 filings with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Of those, 11,272 have been granted – over 10,000 of them between 2013 and 2017. Gaskell notes that “there are also some applications in the system that never published so they are ‘invisible’ so to speak.” In 2017, Apple came in at number 11 for the number of US patents granted, with a total of 2,227 patents, according to figures published by IFI Claims. However, that’s modest by comparison to top-ranking patent holder IBM, which was was granted 9,043 patents in the same year.
Smartphone rivals Samsung, LG and Google were all assigned more US patents than Apple, putting them in the top 10. While all three companies may be associated with a wider range of products than Apple, the firm’s patents show that it hasn’t been shy about pushing into tech sectors including health, automotive and machine learning. Following Apple’s official confirmation of its self-driving car programme in June 2017, December of that year saw the publication of its first autonomous vehicle patent. Apple hasn’t always been a prolific patent generator. In 2011, it received 686 patents – less than a third as many as in 2017. But even then, the company was keenly protecting its intellectual property, a process that has only accelerated under the guidance of Tim Cook, who became CEO in August 2011.
Apple’s enthusiasm for patents has given tech writers plenty to speculate about as they try to guess which are destined to become real products, and which are simply defensive registrations: the vast majority of its patents are for processes and components so small that it won’t even be noticed when and if they’re introduced to one of the company’s future commercial products.