It seems like every year, we get a new prediction that a folding iPhone is on the way. According to some new patents, part of the reason for that wait may be because Apple has been exploring new ways to make every single inch of the elusive device into an input surface, even when it’s folded up like a clamshell. As first noticed by AppleInsider, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the iPhone maker several new patents on Tuesday that hint at highly detailed input capabilities for any future Apple devices, including but not limited to foldables. Apple filed for these in April of last year, but lest you think the company’s only considering a folding phone, that’s just a few months after initial reports mentioned Apple was working on a kind of foldable iPad.
The patent (which you can read here) describes how touch sensor layers can be “overlapped” by a device’s outer panels. According to the patent abstract, these sensors can go under a glass layer along the front, bottom, and “curved sidewalls” of a device. This all points to Apple testing out features that would allow touch inputs on practically every inch of a device’s surface area. Of course, the danger of that would be how brittle it could become, especially as it essentially means you couldn’t use a normal phone case without losing some input area.
The patent also references possibly “wrapping a display around some or all of device,” which seems to indicate that the Cupertino company has explored rounded sidewalls to allow touch sensor capability.
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Apple has been moving in the direction of turning its iPhones into big, touchable slabs that lack a notch or practically any pronounced or recessed outer buttons. The patent references that these sidewall touch sensors could be used for camera controls, a volume slider, or other sliders to control brightness or contrast.
As for why anyone would want touch sensors on the backplate, Apple said it could be used in “gaming applications” among others to display the action while not having to cover up any part of the screen. This does make a good amount of sense, but again it becomes a question of how strong you can make a device for all those people with incredibly clumsy hands. The patent references walls formed of “transparent and opaque materials” of plastic, metal or fiber-composite materials or coatings of clear glass or plastics.
Apple’s patent references how “foldable electronic device[s]” can achieve some of this touchability with a clamshell design. It involves an “elastomeric material” that allows the device to bend, with transparent touch sensors still enabled along the device walls.
There’s also a reference to “an enclosure that allows a device to be folded one or more times along one or more fold axes,” but it’s unclear if anybody would need or even want to fold a device more than once.
There’s been some disagreement among high-profile Apple analysts and rumormongers whether Apple could be releasing some kind of foldable Mac/iPad hybrid by next year. Patents aren’t always a great indicator of what’s to come, but today’s news shows that Apple is at least considering a more foldable future.