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Patent applications offer hint of what Apple has in store

By Peter Evans, CBCNews.ca

The Twitterverse is all, er, a-twitter, at the possibilities suggested by a slew of patent applications that Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple Inc. has filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

An intriguing proposal for an RFID-capable iPhone has people excited by the potential impact on wireless communication, as well as raising some troubling security questions.

Radio-frequency identification tags are microscopic chips that emit radio waves that can be read to identify and monitor anything they're attached to. They're already used extensively in places like retail stores and libraries to track inventory and discourage shoplifting, but in recent years, as the capability to miniaturize them has expanded, their use has expanded to things like credit cards and passports. Toll Highway 407 outside Toronto uses RFID technology to identify and charge customers using the highway without need for cumbersome toll booths.

There's even been baby steps made toward RFID-implantation into humans, which has been met with a predictable outcry over just how much Big Brother would be able to know about you the day we're all walking around with microchips embedded under our skin.

That Apple is aware of RFID's potential is nothing new, but as Apple's pitch for an RFID-transponder embedded into next-generation iPhones suggests, the move towards mobile devices becoming more of an extension of our lives, as opposed to mere implements of technology, is well underway.

The right touch

On the other side of the security spectrum, a fingerprint-sensitive iPhone application hints that Apple sees potential in devices that can be uniquely tailored to work for individual users. A touchscreen that could distinguish fingerprints could theoretically be used to "lock" the device for use only by specific people, to use the most obvious example.

But perhaps even more interestingly, the application opens the door to the possibility that in a certain mode, the device could be trained to identify the prints of individual fingers to perform certain tasks. Want a little more volume during that boring subway commute? Tap the screen with your right index finger -- no need to fiddle with the knob. You don't even have to look at it. Too loud now? Just touch it with your ring finger. The possibilities are endless.

Lastly, it's been argued that part of what made the iPod and iPhone such a roaring success were their minimalist, smooth, svelte and sexy design. But future versions might have a slightly different look. Or feel, to be precise.

Haptic technology, in a nutshell, is the science of touch. Or more specifically, scientists' attempts to create realistic copies of what things feel like to sensitive human skin.

It's always been comparatively easy for technology to produce realistic visual and audio cues. But creating a believable sense of touch is a bit trickier. Haptic technology is the study of how to create things that "feel" right. It's very much in its infancy, but it's already made baby steps into the world of cellphones.

In 2008, Samsung unveiled their SCH-W420 model. Dubbed the "AnyCall Haptic" the phone boasts the ability to use vibrations and other tactile stimuli to give you feedback on what you're doing. When Aunt Mabel calls, the phone rings with one particular vibration -- very handy for call screening. You sure you want to turn down the volume a little? The AnyCall will give you a specific vibration and clicking sound to confirm.

Apple appears to be getting in on the act with something similar, if this patent application ever lives to see the light of day.

Feel the feedback

It's something that's been on Mac's radar for a while, but if it comes to pass, the popular iPhone touchscreen would get a makeover, complemented by a grid of piezoelectronic actuators. That's a $10-word for touch-sensitive, and the grid would "provide vibrational feedback to a user, while the user scrolls around a click wheel, slides across a trackpad, or touches a multi-touch display screen," as Apple puts it.

So the pad would feel different as your finger moves across it. You could have some sort of virtual click wheel which vibrates at a different frequency as you move across it, letting you sense the difference and use the click wheel without having to look at it, for example.

The idea, it seems, is not that this new iPhone could do anything more than it can do now -- but rather that you wouldn't have to interact with it visually or aurally. The element of touch just gets added to the equation.

As to why a web-enabled cellphone you can apparently use without the use of those pesky eyes and ears is a good thing, we'll leave that up to you.

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