The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officially published a series of 37 newly granted patents for Apple Inc. today. In this particular report we cover a single invention relating to future smart fabrics used in smart clothing and more importantly used with devices like an Apple TV remote or MacBook. In fact, much of the patent covers a smart TV remote with built-in wireless circuitry.
Granted Patent: Fabric Control Device
Apple’s newly granted patent covers their invention relating to fabric-based items and more particularly to fabric-based items such as electronic devices covered with fabric surfaces.
According to Apple the fabric may include conductive strands that form touch sensor circuitry. The fabric may include portions that are patterned differently and that have different properties. For example, the fabric may include areas that transmit more light than other areas or are more opaque than other areas or may include areas that are smoother than other areas or are coarser than other areas.
Button labels and other features may be formed by weaving or otherwise intertwining strands of material in the fabric with desired patterns, by processing fabric through application of heat and using other processing techniques, and by applying ink or other materials.
Areas of the fabric such as areas with enhanced light transmission, button labels, distinct textures, or other attributes may overlap input circuitry such as button switches, touch sensor circuits, force sensors, proximity sensors, and other sensing circuitry. The fabric-based item may include control circuitry that gathers user input from the input circuitry and wireless communications circuitry that the control circuitry uses to transmit remote control commands and other wireless signals in response information from the input circuitry. Remote control commands may be used to remotely control electronic equipment.
Apple’s patent FIG. 12 below is a perspective view of an illustrative fabric-based item such as a remote control or other electronic device with fabric covering; FIG. 15 is a perspective view of an illustrative self-righting fabric-based item with a cylindrical housing surface; and FIG. 16 is a side view of an illustrative fabric-based item with deformable housing walls. Apple further notes that when a user grabs the remote, the walls of the remote can compress inwardly.
Of course Apple never restricts a patent to a single application. Apple makes it clear that smart fabrics could be integrated into future devices such as a MacBook (laptop), an iPad (tablet), Apple Watch (wrist watch), headphones, in a vehicle, airplane, chair, sofa and clothing or other wearable item (e.g., a hat, belt, wrist band, headband, sock, glove, shirt, pants, etc.).
Apple’s patent FIG. 10 below is a top view of illustrative fabric-based items such as a fabric-covered remote control or other electronic devices with fabric coverings.
Apple’s patent FIG. 10 above is a view of the front face of an illustrative fabric-based item such as a future version of an Apple TV remote. It’s capable of gathering user input using touch sensors, buttons with switches, force sensors, proximity sensors, and/or other user input devices. The inputs and gathered information could be transmitted wirelessly to remote equipment, like an Apple TV box.
The controls will perform normal functions change video channels or other media playback changes, to navigate between audio tracks or other media tracks, to fast forward or rewind in a song or video, to adjust playback volume by adjusting the gain of output audio amplifiers coupled to speakers etc.).
The smart fabric of the TV remote could illustrate nothing on the remote’s interface until it’s turned on by a user’s touch.
Apple adds that the TV remote may have a make-up of two or more different textures so that a user could identify different input areas even in a dimly lit room.
The TV remote buttons could also be deformed when pressed along with haptics to let the user know when a button is successfully pushed to change a channel or raise the volume.
Apple’s granted patent 10,156,029 titled “fabric Control Device” was filed in Q1 2018 and published today by the US Patent and Trademark Office.
What makes this a serious fabrics invention is that one of the designers listed on the patent is Daniel Podhajny who came to Apple via Nike’s Knit Exploration Innovator team where he worked on Nike’s Flyknit technology.
There’s definitely a race between technology companies occurring behind the scenes to bring smart fabrics to market and expand the “wearables” sector which remains stuck on watches and fitness bands, according to IDC’s latest wearables report.
To date Patently Apple has recorded 13 smart fabric patents from Apple including today’s new entry.
Samsung filed for a smart fabric’s patent recently covering a “Method of Changing Design of Smart Garment.” A Future smartphone will be able to communicate with a smart jersey and allow the garment to change design with a simple tap on a new design using a smartphone app. It’s a pretty interesting concept.
Last November Patently Apple posted a report titled “Smart Interactive Garments may be closer to Market than we think and Google may have the Jump on Apple.” The report provided a project Jacquard video explaining the making of smart fabric. Not in theory but in practice. If you’ve never seen this video, take the time to check it out at the end of this report. It’s a real education in the making of smart fabrics.
As you can see in the photo above, Google is showing their technology woven into a cuff of a Levis Strauss jean jacket. Fast Company did a review of Google’s first generation of smart clothing last year.
Today, the jacket has its limitations like only being able to wash it 10 times. That’s okay for a jean jacket where you want to have that worn look, not so good for other types of clothing at the moment.
This is probably why Apple is first focusing on smart fabrics on computing devices where washing isn’t a big factor.
Smart Fabrics are coming to market in a meaningful way within the next five years and have the power to blow away IDC’s five year wearables market forecast that plays it too safe.
Until Apple makes a first move, it still looks like Google will maintain their lead. Yet on paper, none of the Silicon Valley tech companies have a smart garment product on the market today that excites the market. This is where we look to Jony Ive and his team to deliver that market punch that no one is expecting and have the wearables sector explode to the upside.
Apple owns the smartwatch sector for the next five years, according to IDC’s latest wearables report, and they have the talent to get on the score board and build on that lead beyond Apple Watch. Apple’s thirteen patents on smart fabrics to date tells us that it’s a serious project at Apple. Though as with all patent filings, we never know which ones Apple will be able to bring to life in a timely manner.