As published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple's filing for an "Integrated visual notification system in an accessory device" outlines a hardware product that serves as both a screen protector and active alert device.
In many cases, iPad users rely on some type of covering to protect their tablets' massive glass screens. Products like Apple's tri-fold Smart Cover are popular add-ons to iPad purchases, but the accessories obscure the screen when closed due to the multiple layers of material needed to protect from bumps and scratches.
What Apple proposes is an accessory that shares the same format as current Smart Covers, but incorporates low-power illumination elements like LEDs or electroluminescent panels to provide alerts when closed. The cover would, in some embodiments, be connected to the tablet via a MagSafe cable or electric contacts that power and control the lighting components. Alternatively, inductive charging methods and wireless protocols like Bluetooth can be deployed instead of a hardwired solution.
In another form, the flexible cover would have translucent portions disposed in specific patterns, allowing light from the iPad's display to shine through from below. This passive design does not require a connector as all processing and illumination duties are handled by the device.
Both the active and passive cover types are designed to transmit notifications to the user via shapes, symbols or words. With the embedded component design, the iPad communicates a control signal to the accessory, which then outputs an appropriate illuminated notification visible to the user. The passive format relies on the iPad to illuminate specific portions of its screen based on a known layout of transparent areas on the cover, which in turn transmits the appropriate visual message.
Depending on the priority of the alert, the visual notification can appear on different portions of the cover. For example, if an incoming email is marked "important," a letter-shaped icon may illuminate on a segment near the top of the cover, while a less urgent text message can be displayed near the bottom of the tablet.
A Hall sensor, much like those employed on current iPads, determines whether the cover is in place and based on this input activates or disables the alert system. To dismiss an alert, Apple points to existing hardware controls like the power or volume buttons, both of which are still easily accessible to the user when a Smart Cover is in place.
Finally, a hybrid system is imagined where rows of LEDs or electroluminescent panels are disposed among patterns and cutouts in the cover having varying transparency. The illuminated sections can even be used during normal operation, perhaps as a countdown timer as seen in the illustration below.
Like all Apple patents, it is unknown when such an accessory will hit the market, if at all. The idea is novel and would be useful to iPad owners who always hand-carry their tablet, though the feature would be a drain on battery life.
Apple has dabbled in advanced Smart Cover designs in the past, including "peek mode" technology and hardware with full-blown integrated keyboards, though none of the prior inventions have made their way to market.
Apple's illuminated Smart Cover patent application was first filed for in 2012 and credits Jared Sartee and Justin Wodrich as its inventors.