The geekerati expect the iPhone 8 to have a curved screen, to lose the home button, and to hide the TouchID sensor under the screen. Are they forgetting about the other side of the smartphone? If so, what could Tim Cook be planning for the back of the iPhone?
The USPTO’s regular release of patents allows the public to see some of the ideas that Apple and other manufacturers are working on. The latest batch from Cupertino includes the delightfully sounding “Electronic Devices with Display and Touch Sensor Structures,” reports Jack Purcher of Patently Apple.
This patent describes a technique where touch sensors can be placed around any side of a device allowing for new input sources. The patent also notes that physical buttons (such as the volume controls) could be replaced by these embedded touch sensors. In essence Apple could drop the current buttons and move towards touch-enabled areas on the device for the existing UI. It could also open up areas for new UI paradigms, such as using the back of the smartphone for quick scrolling or page turning.
Using the rear of a portable device is not a new concept. Sony’s last handheld gaming console, the PS Vita, employed a touch panel that was effectively to the rear of the screen. This was used in various games to change where a character looked, to act as a ‘flappy paddle’ gear shift in driving games, extra virtual buttons at each corner of the touch pad, or whatever the game designers required.
Neither would Apple be the first smartphone manufacturer to realise the potential offered by the rear surface of a device. From numerous fingerprint readers and pulse reading sensors, to notification LEDs and eInk screens, the back of the smartphone remains an area where manufacturers can innovate. With smartphones likely to focus on being ‘a sheet of glass with curved edges and no buttons on the front’ during 2017 and 2018, the rear of the handset will become valuable territory for innovation and differentiation
As hardware becomes increasingly homogenized, more effort will be placed on the sides and rear of every smartphone. It’s unlikely that a touch-enabled rear panel on the iPhone would immediately become a primary input mechanism, there are far too many non-touch enabled rear panels on iOS devices currently in the market.
A patent does not guarantee that a technique will show up on the next hardware release. It doesn’t even guarantee that the hardware will ever see the light of day. So let’s take this as a case of Taniyama-Shimura, because Apple does enjoy the challenge the normal use of a device to create new technological solutions that drive the imagination, A rear touch panel does meet that requirement.
Much like the addition of 3D Touch allowed an extra layer of interaction without disturbing the core functionality for existing iPhone and iPad owners, the addition of a touch panel will allow Apple to hopefully stand out from the crowd and portray a spirit of innovation, but the inertia of the existing user base means that Tim Cook and his team will have to take a slow evolutionary approach when they decide to implement this technology.