Apple's user interface experiments make sci-fi a reality

Imagine a pocket-sized device that changed its shape depending on what functions you wanted to use it for.

I'm not talking about an on-screen image to depict a shape, but actual shape-changing technologies which alter the properties of the object itself -- at least to the extent of offering a new interface, with tangible features to enable easier access to those features.

There's work going on:

As revealed in 2009, Sony Computer Entertainment America has filed one patent for a "man-machine interface using a deformable device".

Nokia also has a patent for a shape-shifting phone, in which folding the device in different shapes produces different functions.

Both of these sound interesting, but for real life sci-fi, shoot across to the Apple filing, published last month, in which the company talks about its own shape-shifting device.

From the filing,

"In some embodiments, the user interface can include a shape changeable surface configured to selectively alter topography of the user interface so as to provide a variable tactile feel of the user interface. The shape changeable surface can include individual nodes that can be raised above or lowered below the initial surface.

"Alternatively, the shape changeable surface can include shape changeable material that can change shape to form discrete shapes above or below the initial surface. Alternatively, the shape changeable surface can include deformable material that can deform into discrete forms above or below the initial surface."

In other words, a flat surface created from MultiTouch-savvy material (possibly involving use of Nitinol) divided into nodes, which can raise or lower depending on what you want the Apple product to do.

Touch sensors could lurk under the surface of each of these nodes.

As an idea for how this could be applied, think about the iPad.

At present when you want to type something, you get an on-screen keyboard.

If these technologies were to reach the iPad, you'd see actual key shapes appear on the screen in 3D, not virtual 3D, but physical. Each of these would be marked for use. It would have the feel of a true physical keyboard -- and, like the great enigma, would disappear when you were done.

Conceivably, this would also render a physical interface if using a piano emulation app.

Images included within the description clearly show the initial implementation would see dedicated areas of this shape-changing multitouch substance on familiar devices.

On an iPhone, of course, such a technology could immediately mean access to a real physical keyboard, which nicely disappears so as to not ruin the Ive aesthetic.

Now imagine an iPod that could morph into, say, a camera, a TV remote control, a music player ... imagination is the limit to implementation here, thougt at present you retain the same basic shape.

I've been curious about this patent ever since reading about it, so I spoke with Apple patent expert, Jack Purcher (who first revealed this on his Patently Apple website), who noted one image within the patent filing, saying,

Referring to an included image, Purcher said, "Apple's patent figure 9 is an odd addition. It's a classic iPhone with a slide out keyboard. But instead of it being a classic keyboard, Apple could apply the nitinol to this area. This way it could morph that blank area into a keyboard if you're a BlackBerry Freak, or a game controller, and so on.

"Apple throwing in that design wasn't by accident. It's plausible and the right place to implement this technology," he added.

A caveat: I'm not saying 'Hey, this amazing new technology is going to reach an iPhone near you tomorrow'. It may never emerge from Apple's R&D department.

Merely having a patent published doesn't immediately mean a product is going to ship. But as a notion of the ways in which Apple continues to invest in future-focused user interface ideas, this has to be seen as thought-provoking.

After all, should Apple actually manage to take this patent out of the labs and into a shipping product, it would constitute a "nightmare on wheels" for competitors, including BlackBerry, Purcher noted.

It is possible the steady inclusion of images of an iPhone/iPod within the patent filing is a red herring -- imagine if this technology were used within Apple's Macs? Perhaps as part of an evolving user interface with more focus on touch?

Perhaps this is far-fetched, so I thought some might enjoy this video, which shows you the first fruits of a Darpa-backed research project, which has so far produced a shape-shifting sheet that can fold itself into a little plane or a boat on demand.

(The idea being to make a big sheet that can be a real plane or boat, presumably.)

Images from here.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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