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December 04, 2014

Your Next Apple Phone may be a Gymnast

Apple patents have a way of leaking out from time to time, if for no other reason than people watch Apple so closely in general. But one of Apple's latest patents may well turn the next iPhone—or at least a subsequent iPhone—into a kind of gymnast, thanks to its ability to flip in mid-air.

The new patent in question covers technology that does two things: one, it detects that a phone has been dropped and is about to hit the ground, and two, it rotates the device in mid-air to mitigate some of the damage that could happen in the process. This feat is accomplished using most of the parts currently onboard the device, but in an unusual fashion. The phone can identify where it is in space, and where it is moving to, via several tools ranging from GPS and compass to accelerometers and gyroscopic sensors. Using that data, it can quickly tell it's on a rapid course downward, and from there, can quickly compute how to land in such a fashion that the impact is taken on the “mathematically least vulnerable” part of the device. Then, in what may be the strangest part of the patent, the phone then can use the motor that vibrates the device for incoming calls and texts and the like to essentially shake the phone into the proper position in flight. However, there are provisions made for other measures, including a small gas canister inside the device that acts as a thruster.

The patent was originally filed in 2011, according to reports, so a couple models of iPhone have already come and gone since that patent was originally filed. Of course, it's a stretch too far to say that this will make it into the iPhone 7 now that Apple has the patent—it may ultimately prove too expensive to put into play or otherwise difficult to engineer—but still, patents are worth watching in that such things reveal potential directions future developments may take. Indeed, this is a development that may prove costly or even dangerous; a compressed air canister contained in the superstructure of an electrical device sounds like it might be an explosive risk if something malfunctions. Though admittedly it would have to be under just the right conditions to create such a risk, it may well be that that may keep such a thing out of play. Additionally, it seems to be a case of solving the wrong problem; for those concerned about dropping an expensive iDevice, there are cases out there that do a terrific job of absorbing impact. I once saw a case line known as the Ballistic line, which was actually several separate components that fit together to deliver some impressive levels of shock absorption. One Ballistic case was drop tested from a height of 12 feet without incident. Besides, if moves toward wearable tech continue unabated, there may not be much call to protect a phone from dropping as it will be worn on the wrist.

The key here, however, is that Apple really hasn't lost its taste—or its touch—for innovation. While some believe that most iPhones these days are just variations on a theme, it's clear that Apple does have some capability to innovate. While it would be nice to see more of these innovations make it to the product line, the fact that it's even being considered should still be enough to keep some happy.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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