Apple invents technique to hide integral internal components in plain sight

in General Discussion edited January 2014
An Apple patent filing discovered on Thursday reveals the company is researching a system in which the internals of a device such as the iPhone are hidden behind a "window" that can change states from opaque to transparent, allowing users to reveal a component when it's needed and hide it when it's not.

Hidden Window
Source: USPTO

Apple's patent application, titled "Devices and methods for providing access to internal component," offers a method to conceal components that are needed only temporarily or go largely unused, cleaning up the overall appearance of the device.

Most noteworthy are so-called "visually-dependent components" which "traditionally required external exposure to light or that emit light." Examples are biometrics, or fingerprint readers, flashes, cameras and light sensors, among others.

Hidden camera and fingerprint sensors.

It seems that the invention is skewed toward a device's aesthetic appearance, as noted in the patent's background:
Furthermore, under the current techniques, adding new components may harm the aesthetic appeal of the device by cluttering the electronic device enclosure, even though these additional components may be seldom or never used by many users. An electronic device that incorporates multiple components may lose its aesthetic appeal when covered by visible components, particularly as compared to a seamless electronic device where very few, if any, components of the electronic device are visible.
With devices coming in ever smaller packages, and in the case of the iPhone with few visible components besides the screen, the task of incorporating additional hardware features without sacrificing design has become increasingly difficult.

What Apple proposes is a system to conceal integral parts that may need to sit near the device's surface for easy access. This system can temporarily or permanently hide a component depending on how often the user chooses to activate its corresponding feature, such as a fingerprint reader. The invention can be further implemented to cover camera assemblies or other commonly-used components to make a device appear monolithic in construction.

Back of iPhone with hidden camera array and flash.

Some current portables made by various electronics manufacturers employ similar techniques, for example a smartphone's dedicated capacitive buttons can be "lit up" by LED backlighting when not in use. This methodology doesn't truly hide a component, however, but instead selectively reveals a specific activated area of a touch sensitive surface that is technically never obscured from view.

Apple's solution calls for a polymer dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC) window, or similar technology, "that can change between opaque and transparent configurations," allowing components to seemingly "appear as from out of nowhere."

Powering the window would be the window controller, which determines when to transition the unit from opaque to transparent, or when to "open and close" the window. To operate the window, an electrode can be used to change the orientation of liquid crystal molecules in the PDLC layer, akin to how LCD display technology works.

The controller decides when to "open the window" based on a number of inputs which can range from a photo application starting up to reveal a camera, or an unlock screen that would uncover a fingerprint reader.

Illustration of window controller operation.

Perhaps most interesting is the patent's suggestion to dispose the window behind a transparent OLED display, thereby allowing components to be situated not merely in a device's bezels or backplate, but under the screen itself. As seen in the illustration below, this implementation would be particularly useful in unlocking the device with a fingerprint reader or face-recognizing camera.

Transparent OLED
Camera for facial recognition security behind translucent OLED and PDLC window.

While the invention is enticing, it is unclear if and when Apple plans to integrate such a solution into a consumer product. The move to an aluminum uni-body shell with the iPhone 5 limits the utility of the patent moving forward, at least when compared to the previous generation handset's "glass sandwich" design, a prime candidate for the "hidden window" tech.

Apple filed the patent application in April 2011, with Felix Jose Alvarez Rivera, Richard Hung Minh Dinh and Scott A Myers credited as its inventors.


  • Reply 1 of 23
    irelandireland Posts: 17,796member
    Likely wont materialise.
  • Reply 2 of 23
    Very cool concept.
  • Reply 3 of 23
    oflifeoflife Posts: 120member
    A cloaking device?

  • Reply 4 of 23

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post

    Likely wont materialise.


    It is likely we won't see an embodiment of this for some time

  • Reply 5 of 23
    haarhaar Posts: 563member
    well, Apple is Patenting every worthy idea that they think of... sort of a "patent" or perish for employees LOL... you know akin to the tenure of university/college profs...
  • Reply 6 of 23

    Now that the form-factor of the iPhone is more-or-less decided upon for the next few iterations, it looks like all changes will be with 'the beast within', so to speak. Of course, it doesn't look like this patent is something that will come within the next few iterations, if ever.

  • Reply 7 of 23
    gazoobeegazoobee Posts: 3,754member
    This would have been filed right at the point where they were furiously investigating fingerprint scanning, but quite a bit before they actually made their move and bought the company that has the tech to integrate fingerprint scanning right into the screen.

    This makes me think that this was an early attempt that was patented for the sake of it being a good idea, but not actually the way they will actually be going.
  • Reply 8 of 23
    sennensennen Posts: 1,472member
    Innovate, don't litigate, Apple.
  • Reply 9 of 23

    did Microsoft not figure you could patent 'Hide inactive Icons' .

    Someone will certainly have to pay.
  • Reply 10 of 23
    No buttons. Very Jobsean.
  • Reply 11 of 23
    allenbfallenbf Posts: 993member

    I dig it.  Very cool, i love to see innovation.

  • Reply 12 of 23

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post

    Likely wont materialise.


    Why? We've had notification lights that disappear when they're not on for YEARS now. 

  • Reply 13 of 23
    haar wrote: »
    well, Apple is Patenting every worthy idea that they think of... sort of a "patent" or perish for employees LOL... you know akin to the tenure of university/college profs...

    Just like every other tech company, and many non tech.
  • Reply 14 of 23
    Actually, the technology underneath that is far from new. The application is kinda cool, but I'm surprised this has been deemed worthy of a patent. I'll admit being no expert, I probably am missing the finer points though ^^
  • Reply 15 of 23

    This is how it's going to work: When Google releases a Maps app, it will disappear every time an iPhone user touches it.

  • Reply 16 of 23
    mac_dogmac_dog Posts: 1,055member

    yeah, apple needs competition in order to stay innovative and relevant. they simply keep besting themselves. glad they have the patent on this. then they can defend themselves in court when all their competitors copy them.

  • Reply 17 of 23


    Originally Posted by sennen View Post

    Innovate, don't litigate, Apple.


    filing a patent isn't the same as litigating so you can drop that hyperbole. Also, Apple isn't doing anything different than every other company out there. IP law allows them to protect their inventions and they are. So even if this was a lawsuit, they aren't doing anything wrong. Same as Samsung, Microsoft, Google. 

  • Reply 18 of 23
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 6,069member


    Originally Posted by sennen View Post

    Innovate, don't litigate, Apple.

    Unless miscreants like Samsung "conveniently" lifts Apple's idea a few months after and cries "but it was obviously the next evolutionary step!"

    buzz off troll.

  • Reply 19 of 23


    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post

    Likely wont materialise.


    I like your choice of words, but it may in fact end up in some product in the future.

  • Reply 20 of 23
    leonardleonard Posts: 528member
    I'm not sure why you say this won't be seen for some time. We already have windows that can go from transparent to opaque with the flick of a switch - an electronic current changes passing through the window changes the state. This seems to be quite similar. Parts of the case would be opaque (and likely thinner), until activated to go transparent.

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