Much of the attention paid to products that Apple may be developing has focused on the so-called iWatch, an Apple-designed television and, of course, the new iPhone.
But in an earnings call on Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook emphasized just how crucial it is for Apple to build something for the car, offering perhaps a clue to a project the company is working on.
"Having something in the automobile is very, very important," Cook said in response to a question from an analyst. "It's something that people want, and I think that Apple can do this in a unique way and better than anyone else. So it's a key focus for us."
At its annual developer's conference last month, Apple announced iOS in the Car, a feature in its forthcoming mobile operating system that will closely integrate iTunes, iMessage, Maps and Siri in cars from a dozen manufacturers beginning next year.
But a recent patent filing shows that Apple may be focusing on something much bigger than just the marriage of your iPhone and your car: building the car dashboard of the future.
Earlier this month, Apple Insider reported that the company had been granted a patent for "a touchscreen-based telematics system," basically a customizable car dashboard and console. The system features a touch screen that could change in feel, so the driver could make adjustments to it without looking away from the road.
In the design, cameras in the interior of the car pick up the position of the driver's hand and project that image onto the windshield, effectively showing the driver what he or she is doing.
The patent filing also reveals that the in-car system would be equipped with sensors that allow the driver to, for example, increase the temperature using a hand gesture.
The filing, which Apple Insider notes is a continuation of previous patents Apple acquired, includes descriptions of heads-up displays, customizable knobs and switches, and a screen that can be operated by a "laser pointer or like device."
The filing describes the patent as "A revolutionary form of dashboard or instrument panel results which is stylistically attractive, lower in cost, customizable by the user, programmable in both the tactile and visual sense, and with the potential of enhancing interior safety and vehicle operation."
Car manufacturers have responded to the proliferation of smartphones, and the safety risks of distracted driving, by selling cars with systems that try to integrate technology more safely.
But Apple has shown that one of its biggest strengths is designing beautiful, intuitive hardware. Rather than just sending data from an iPhone to a dashboard designed by a car manufacturer, or to a system designed by Blackberry, it would make sense that Apple would build its own from the ground up. After all, Cook did say that when it comes to having something in the car, "Apple can do this in a unique way and better than anyone else."
"I think it's a natural extension from the phone to go into the car, just like it is for the TV and for the watch," said Brian Colello, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar. "Apple's expertise is a simple, sleek user interface. Siri, Maps -- all of that lends itself well for an in-vehicle dashboard."
While Colello emphasized that it's not clear how Apple would make money from such a system, "It could be a nice area of innovation."
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'Pouring' File Transfer
The HP TouchPad's "<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqSm-pusG-g" target="_hplink">touch to share</a>" feature has nothing on this futuristic Apple patent, which illustrates Apple devices emmulating natural, real-world gestures. In the illustrated example above, an iPhone is tilted over an iPad in order to share files, the way you would do if you were "pouring" the data from one device into the other. <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2011/0163944.html" target="_hplink">2010</a></strong> Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2011/07/apple-wants-to-beat-hps-webos-sharing-feature-with-something-cooler.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a>
Back in 2006, Apple filed a patent for a laser-based binocular display unit, which could attach to glasses, helmets, or goggles. In theory, users could plug the device into their iPod and watch videos via the head-mounted apparatus instead of on the tiny iPod display. This wearable system would also let the user remain mobile while enjoying media entertainment. <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2008/0088937.html" target="_hplink">2006</a></strong> Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2008/04/apple-preparing-a-cool-ipod-visual-head-display-system.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a>
This filing makes us wonder what it would be like to have an iPhone with separate displays on its front and back. If each display operated independently, then users could control navigation (or a table of contents) on one side while reading or watching video on the other. <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2011/0175805.html" target="_hplink">2010</a></strong> Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2011/08/apple-thinks-that-youll-flip-over-a-future-generation-iphone.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a>
3D Holographic Projector
Many technology companies are betting that 3D is the next big thing, and fortunately for Apple, it already has a few patents to its name. One such example is a desktop display system that projects a 3D hologram, rather than projecting a 2D image onto a flat screen. <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/7843449.html" target="_hplink">2006</a> Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2008/03/apple-working-on-3d-holographic-projection-displays.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a>
Using a reflector that captures light externally, future MacBook owners could enjoy using their laptops outside while harnessing the sun's natural energy to power the device. Apple's patent states that a "translucent surface may also serve to protect the rear face of the display screen from damage". <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2010/0073791.html" target="_hplink">2008</a></strong> <em>Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2010/03/solar-powered-macbooks-may-be-in-our-future.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a></em>
In one iteration of the system, users wrap earphone cables around a charging tower and place a conductive metal mesh on their device in order to power-up. <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2011/0188677.html" target="_hplink">2010</a></strong> Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2011/08/apples-inductive-charging-patent-finally-surfaces.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a>
Picture this: an iPod Classic whose touch wheel can morph into a television remote keypad. Currently, input devices use a specific set of operations (such as buttons, keys, touch screens) to command a computer; but, a shape shifting configuration that can physically change interface topography could be a complete game-changer in consumer electronics. <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2010/0162109.html" target="_hplink">2009</a></strong> Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2010/06/apple-introduces-the-incredible-shape-shifting-device-interface.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a>
Liquidmetal Battery Power
This patent would let Apple use liquidmetal, or "<a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/7862957.html" target="_hplink">amorphous alloy</a>" collector plates for internal component fuel cells. <a href="http://www.cultofmac.com/apple-is-granted-its-first-liquidmetal-patent-exclusive/75486" target="_hplink">According to Cult of Mac</a>, this technology "could power mobile phones for more than 30 days without recharging and notebooks for 20 hours or more." <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/7862957.html" target="_hplink">2004</a></strong> Source: <a href="http://www.cultofmac.com/apple-is-granted-its-first-liquidmetal-patent-exclusive/75486" target="_hplink">Cult of Mac</a>
3D gesturing allows users to rotate objects on the touch screen, gain different perspectives, control color and texture, and more. This technology could be a breakthrough in computer-aided design applications and games. <strong>Filed: <a href="http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2011/0164029.html" target="_hplink">2010</a></strong> Source: <a href="http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2011/07/apples-wild-new-3d-gesturing-is-aimed-at-cad-avatar-creation-more.html" target="_hplink">Patently Apple</a>