What would a shape-shifting iPhone do?

In July I wrote about an Apple patent which described ways in which iPhones and other devices could change shape and function depending on what's going on around them. At the time I visualized this only in the sense of the user interface, but how much further can these ideas go?

This week I came across this illuminating TED talk in which Fabian Hemmert talked about one future of the mobile phone, as a shape-shifting and weight-shifting handset that "displays" information nonvisually.

As Apple seems to be ramping up its innovation extremely rapidly, Hemmert's exploring how we can make digital content actually graspable, how we can physically realize digital content in the 'real' world.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

The video is thought-provoking and may, I think, provide a better glimmer of an idea as to how Apple's 'shape-shifting' patent can be applied.

What would a shape-shifting iPhone do? Some ideas:

  1. Covered with sensors, when you place the device sideways onto a flat surface it might respond by intelligently extruding its own stand to keep the screen facing in your direction;
  2. When you were using Maps or GPS to get somewhere, you might find the weight of the device would favour the direction you were meant to follow;
  3. When streaming music to your AirPlay device your iPhone might even project multi-coloured light in time to the music.

A second published patent this week reveals Apple is exploring ways by which to make its mobile devices more intelligently aware of the environment they are in. This patent describes devices covered with many different types of sensors.

"The sensors could even be used to identify different users, depending on their hand image, common movements and whether they're left or right handed.  They could even remove the need for an orientation lock-switch, linking screen rotation to the way that the tablet or handset is being held," reports Slashgear.

In combination, you can imagine devices which when held with one hand understood this, with the gyroscopic sensor setting the center of gravity of the device to a setting easier to be held with that one (left or right) hand. Physical controls could perhaps be made accessible using your thumb.

Sounds far-fetched?

Perhaps so, but as the relationship between people's real life and virtual lives becomes more pervasive, the relationship between users and their gadgets is inevitably going to become more personal, though many such realizations are a long way from becoming reality.

Intel has only recently revealed it has begun work on 'claytronics', materials which can be controlled remotely to change form and/or function.

These patents do show us that Apple is exploring ways in which to make its mobile products more human. Developing human interfaces is important to Apple.

That recognition of the human as the organic half of the relationship between a computing device and digital reality is, for example, why the sleep light on a MacBook radiates at a pace near to the beat of a human heart at rest.

Compare that small detail with the sleep lights of notebooks from other manufacturers. Little details like these make incremental small differences to the relationship between man and machine.

UPDATE: Since this article was originally published a third patent has appeared which describes a technology to make a handheld device actually recognize your hand, changing its control interface to your profile setting.

One day, perhaps, you'll be able to use a spoken command to make your device walk toward you. Meanwhile, enjoy the dancing iPod nano, and feel free to follow us on Twitter:

ABOVE: Visa is working with New York transit authorities to develop systems which will let commuters pay their travel costs with their iPhones. A significant step toward your iPhone becoming your wallet.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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