TL;DR: The USPTO granted Apple several patents this week. A touch surface that covers the entire device is one of the more intriguing. The concept would use touch sensors embedded in the case to provide user controls for things like volume, brightness, game controls, and more.
The Cupertino designers’ first illustration accompanying the patent application appears to be a foldable iPhone. The patent proposes laying a flexible membrane with touch sensors over the entire phone. The idea here would be that a user could still interact with the device without unfolding it, making it more user-friendly.
“Capturing touch input from a user and efficiently displaying images to a user can be difficult,” the application explains. “For example, when a user provides touch input on a touchscreen display, the user’s hand can block images that appear on the display.”
The company also believes solid-state touch sensors are more versatile than physical switches. In fact, a panel on the phone’s body could change or adapt to the condition of the device. For example, when folded, the rear screen and control panel could provide a means to answer or reject a call on the speaker. When unfolded, these controls can be disabled to prevent accidental activations, or moved to the sides of the device.
Taking this a step further, the control panel could give the user access to volume, track switching and scrolling browsing when listening to streaming music with the phone folded. Control could then dynamically switch to a phone UI when calls are received.
The overall idea behind the patent is excellent, especially for a folding device, but Apple didn’t want to limit its vision. It mentioned that it could also apply the technology to non-foldable devices. The patent describes the use of the touch-sensitive layer to provide a wraparound screen on a standard iPhone. Recent leaks suggest the iPhone 15 could ditch external buttons and replace them with solid-state controls with haptic feedback. If these rumors hold up, we could see this patent bearing fruit long before we see a foldable iPhone.
One of the weirdest use cases Apple mentions is video game touch controls on the back of the phone.
“In gaming applications and other applications, it may be desirable to use a touch sensor on the back of the device to capture touch input while showing related visual information on a display on the opposite front of the device [sic].”
This functionality is not the best example of a user-friendly application. Aside from the awkward contortions a gamer’s hands would have to make to both hold the phone and use the controls on the back, there’s a whole not-so-shallow learning curve that gamers would have to go through to get used to it. to input they cannot see. How would a game tutorial for this even look like?
I think the point that Cupertino is trying to convey is the versatility of the concept. With sensors on every surface, there are unlimited ways developers can implement them into their app UI, no matter the type of application. The main disadvantage of this, whether foldable or not, is that it is much more prone to damage. A case can protect the phone, but at the cost of touch functionality.
However, Apple has a bazillion patents in its graveyard of lost ideas. Don’t hold your breath that this one will ever bear fruit. As with all of its concepts, Apple just wants to be sure it thought of it first because it’s had its share of patent trolls.