Apple's Next Big Hit Could Come From One of These Tantalizingly Awesome Patents

Missing the magic in Apple product announcements? Here are five Apple patents showing what could be ahead. Read more at Quartz, the new business site from The Atlantic.



Critics bashed Apple for adding little revolutionary or unexpected to the iPhone 5 released on Sept. 21. They yearned for the days when Steve Jobs thrilled consumers with surprising new features, or at least remarkably polished version of competitors' existing products.

Quartz dug into Apple's US patents to look at unreleased technology the company could tap to bring some magic to its future product releases. It's difficult to know what the secretive company has in the works (it didn't respond to our request for comment for this article), but here are five potential candidates for features to restore any wavering of the Apple faithful.

1. The 3D interface

Apple patented a three-dimensional display system that would create "pseudo-holographic" projections in November 2010. Leagues beyond the flimsy 3D glasses you wear to movies, Apple's patent outlines a holographic system that can track multiple sets of eyes and create a different 3D image for each viewer. The projection would adjust itself if the viewer moved and would even be able to recognize users who are in range but aren't actively looking, and so can be ignored. No glasses are needed. A possible future gee-whiz feature for Apple TV, perhaps.

2. The 3D Desktop

The 3D desktop has a lot in common with with the hologram patent, including face recognition, but is for computers. Three-dimensional file browsing, gaming, and (yikes) spreadsheets would be the biggest upgrade to the graphical user interface since its invention in 1973. Nor would it be limited to your laptop: the patent specifies that it's for both the Mac OS and the iOS used on iPhones and iPads.

3. Apple TV

Jobs told Isaacson that he wanted to create "an integrated television set that is completely easy to use." Even if 3D television sounds like a pipe-dream, Apple got a dozen patents in Aug. 2012 that hint at more prosaic Apple TV upgrades. The most notable would allow for live viewing. Currently, Apple TV is limited to iTunes rentals, Hulu, Netflix and similar web-based sources, meaning you need a separate non-Apple box to watch cable TV. That could change with a patent originally filed in 2006.  Diagrams in the patent have television shows from NBC, HBO and CBS with a new menu that looks a lot like the docks used in Apple's desktop OS. The record option shown in the drawings would also allow Apple TV to function like a digital video recorder, or DVR.

4. Haptics

Game controllers that vibrate are already common for devices such as Nintendo's Wii. But Apple has a series of haptic patents that could take things to the next level. Localized feedback could create the illusion that buttons are springing up from the surface of a flat phone. Virtual keyboards would be more like their physical counterparts. It's even possible that our brain could be fooled into believing that we're running our fingers along the edges of photos or other interface elements. iPhones have already empowered the blind and haptics would only make them more accessible. Further into the future, it's possible Apple could apply research from the University of Tokyo that would add touch to holograms.

5. Fingerprint Scanning

This is the only patent acquisition on this list. In July, Apple paid $356 million for the security company AuthenTec and control of its stable of patents. In an SEC regulatory filing around the deal, Apple stated its interest in "commercialization of 2D fingerprint sensors." One potential application is obvious: when you grab your phone, its screen or back instantly recognizes your hand, and refuses to unlock for anyone else.

Presented by

Christopher Mims and Jackie Snow

Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent at Quartz. Jackie Snow is a writer for Quartz.

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