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Apple May Put The Squeeze on iPhone

Apple May Put The Squeeze on iPhone

The company that made swiping and pinching standard gestures for smartphones now wants to add another: squeezing. Apple's patent for squeezability -- what it called on the patent application "sensing capacitance changes of a housing of a device" -- could add another level of user interactivity to the consumer device experience if the company follows through with the concept.

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
03/06/13 2:39 PM PT

Apple wants to make a future iPhone your main squeeze.

The company received approval Tuesday from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a patent that would allow you to control a device by squeezing its housing.

According to Patent No. 8,390,481, Apple has invented a scheme for measuring a user's interaction with the housing of a device independent of the user's electrical characteristics.

Apple's patent for a squeezable device
Apple's patent for a squeezable device (click to enlarge)
Those characteristics are used by touch screens to recognize gestures and execute tasks.

Measuring the stress on a housing will allow Apple to use that to execute tasks.

Ugly Keyboards

As consumers become more sophisticated, they prefer electronic devices with "more aesthetically pleasing interface mechanisms," Apple explained in its patent filing. "These aesthetically pleasing interfaces include touch pads and/or touch screens that do not have keys, buttons or other input mechanisms that physically protrude from the keyboard."

A drawback to touch screens, though, is that they don't always accurately interpret when a user is in contact with them. That's the case if a user is wearing ordinary gloves, for instance, or their fingers are soiled.

If a user's hand is resting on the screen, when that screen is touched again, it may ignore it because the device has interpreted the at-rest state as a touch.

"Furthermore," the patent continued, "because conventional electronic devices register a user touching the touch pad and/or touch screen by detecting for the user's capacitance or inductance, conventional electronic devices are often incapable of determining the amount of pressure applied to the electronic device because the user's capacitance or inductance is generally unrelated to the pressure applied.

"Accordingly, methods and apparatuses that provide measurement of a user's interaction with the housing of an electronic device may be useful," it added.

Button Without Button

Squeezing can be viewed as an extension of gesture interfaces, according to Michael Morgan, a mobile devices analyst with ABI Research.

Touch screens use gestures. Eye-tracking is gesturing with the eyes, and then there are gestures such as shaking a handset to clear a screen, or tilting one to scroll. "This patent fits into that category of technologies," he told MacNewsWorld.

Adding squeeze capabilities to a phone's gesture library is a way of adding another control to a device while boosting its aesthetic values. "It's adding a button without adding a button," Morgan said.

Incorporating a subsystem into a phone to measure stress, however, is adding to its complexity. "The more moving parts you have, the more potential you have for parts to wear down," he noted.

Expanding Gesture Vocabulary

Squeezing is the next step after touch, according to Carl Howe, research director at the Yankee Group.

"You can touch something, but that's a limited gesture because you don't know anything about how much pressure was put into the touch," he told MacNewsWorld.

"These ideas of squeezing, twisting -- things of that sort -- are going to become part of the gesture vocabulary." he said.

One of the biggest challenges to designers incorporating squeezing into a device will be making such movements intuitive for users.

"What squeezes make sense to the average user?" he asked. "Touching and waving are more common than squeezing. Squeezing is an unusual gesture."

Boon for Tablets

Larger devices, such as tablets, could also benefit from pressure gestures, said Ben Bajarin, principal at Creative Strategies, a technology consulting firm.

"It makes one -handed operation easier with big devices," he told MacNewsWorld. "You could tap the side to go back and rub the side to scroll."

"I can see it adding a lot value from a navigation and operational standpoint, because it's going to give you the ability to perform more complex tasks either one-handed or two-handed," he said.

As patent watchers know, however, just because a company has a patent approved doesn't mean it will be used.

"The patent is interesting but, like a lot of things, I'm not sure it will show up anytime soon in a phone," Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group told MacNewsWorld. "But you never know."


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