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Lurking in Apple's Future: Transparent Displays and Styluses?

A number of recent patent applications suggest that Apple is exploring technologies that could change the way consumers use its iOS-based devices: styluses and transparent displays.

Styluses aren't new by a long shot. Touch screen technology has often been paired with a stylus in the past: Microsoft (MSFT) and its various pen-driven Windows interfaces, Palm with stylus-carrying PDAs, and Wacom (WACMF), which has long made graphics tablets and, more recently, combination tablets and displays, are three vendors that come immediately to mind.

Steve Jobs dismissed using a stylus in 2007:

If you've ever used a mobile device that needed a stylus, you'd know how annoying it can be to lose it. But it's more likely that Jobs likely wanted to distance the iPhone, with its pure touch interface, from the extensive number of products that had previously used a stylus on a touch-sensitive surface. There are times when a finger tip simply won't do.

Even now, Apple already sells third-party styluses as products that "adapt iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch for special needs." Patent applications over the last few months show Apple's developing interests in specialty pen and display combinations. A patent application from January and two more from today show Apple's continued interests in stylus computing.

The January application and number 20110162894 from today both focus on a capacitive stylus that would work with the type of touch technology Apple currently uses. Below is a drawing from the application that makes the intended use clear:

Although there is massive prior art for using a stylus on a tablet, previous examples generally used resistive technology, in which pressure causes two conductive layers to touch and complete an electric circuit, which identifies the position on the surface.

Apple uses capacitive screens, which require a new approach to work, as the first independent claim from the application filed January 2010 and made public today shows:

A stylus comprising: a body having a first end and a second end; a tip located at a first end of the body, wherein the tip capacitively couples a user to an input device touched by the tip.
The capacitive pen might pass muster as being significant different from previous work in the field, though it may have challenges. (Samsung, for example, has come out with a capacitive touch screen stylus for the Galaxy Tab tablet.) The other application, number 20110164000, is for a communicating stylus that would let the user write on paper, a whiteboard, or some other surface and then display on a screen what had been written.

Again, the concept isn't new, but doesn't have to be for Apple to find a particular variant to patent. The more important point is to see the company's potential strategic direction.

More intriguing, in terms of what it could mean for device design, is patent application 20110164047 for a transparent electronic display. Again, because the concept and not the breadth of legal protection is of primary interest, here is the abstract:

A method and system for displaying images on a transparent display of an electronic device. The display may include one or more display screens as well as a flexible circuit for connecting the display screens with internal circuitry of the electronic device. Furthermore, the display screens may allow for overlaying of images over real world viewable objects, as well as a visible window to be present on an otherwise opaque display screen. Additionally, the display may include active and passive display screens that may be utilized based on images to be displayed.
You'd be able to actually see through the screen, like a window capable of displaying images. You can imagine a variety of uses for something like this, such as the following:
  • augmented reality, in which information would display over something you looked at in the real world
  • augmentation of existing video programming without having to go into the video stream itself
  • an actual window in a building that could immediately turn into an electronic display, either for entertainment or for marketing and merchandising
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