October 25, 2016

iPhone 7: patents hint at touchless, button-free handset

iPhone users could someday be able to navigate and interact with their handsets without touching them.

Newly discovered patents filed by Apple show the company is interested in expanding its 3D touch features from the iPhone 6S to expand what can be done with its force-sensitive feature on future handsets, reports The Week.

The first patent describes a radical idea called “proximity and multi-touch sensor detection and demodulation” – essentially, technology to allow users to navigate their handsets without even touching them.

According to ValueWalk, the system would use photodiodes or other proximity-sensing hardware connected to the iPhone’s current force-sensitive 3D touch capabilities. This would allow users to control the handset merely by hovering their fingers over the display and pushing virtual buttons created by bouncing infrared emitted from LEDs back into the photodiodes. Apparently, it could improve the device’s battery life as well as saving space.

It’s an interesting feature, but ValueWalk says it most likely will not be coming on the iPhone 7 in September. Apple has yet to roll out comparatively simple 3D touch on many of its devices and according to AppleInsider, releasing hover-touch now could “muddy the waters”. The patent was only filed in March 2015, too.

The second user interaction-based patent outlines plans to introduce 3D touch to the home button. AppleInsider says this would work by arranging electrodes underneath the home button that would connect when pressed and introduce new options depending on the amount of pressure exerted.

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“For example, an iPhone can be unlocked by a light touch with a registered finger, while a deep press unlocks the device and executes an operation like opening an app,” it says. “Contextual commands might also be mapped to distinct pressure levels, such as replying to a recently received message with a selection of intelligent responses”.

While most of the focus is on the functions such an addition could bring to the iPhone, TechnoBuffalo says it could have a massive impact on the handset’s design as well. Introducing a home button with force-sensitive touch could mean it no longer needs to be a physical feature and instead could be a flat surface with haptic feedback – curious, considering early iPhone 7 rumours hinted it may have an edge-to-edge display. Using 3D touch like this could mean the home button becomes a location on the screen rather than a physical element.

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