The Apple Watch is undergoing constant development, and when you look back over the previous generations, so much new technology has landed on Apple’s smartwatch.
But what do Apple Watch Series 5 features such as ECG readings, Fall Detection and LTE all have in common? They all landed as patents years before they hit consumers’ wrists.
Looking at patents can offer a window into the future. Most won’t arrive, but it enables us to share the vision and conversations going on behind closed doors at the biggest tech giants. It also enables us to dream a little, and that’s why we love and follow technology – for those moments of magical innovation.
We’ve put together this list of patents that may (or may not) show where the Apple Watch is heading, with the help of Patently Apple – which does an amazing job of tracking the filings out of Cupertino.
Update: This feature was originally published in May 2018 and has been updated to include more recent Apple Watch patents
Explaining the world of Apple Watch patents
Jack Purcher, who runs Patently Apple, also points out how hard it is to guess which patents will turn into a product “because patents are a living thing at times – in that they could take 10-plus years to come to market.” He notes that, for example, the iPhone was couched in iPod-like patent filings that didn’t exactly describe the product Apple was working on as a mobile phone.
Eric Slivka, editor-in-chief at MacRumors, told Wareable that Apple is so protective about what it’s working on that it tends to patent a wide range of stuff.
“There’s some question as to when you see a patent whether that’s something that’s coming up, or whether it’s something they decided not to do, or something they filed a patent on just in case or to try to shut somebody else out,” Slivka says.
However, it’s also possible to see what Apple is working on when looking at its patents. Even though Steve Jobs famously came out against the stylus, causing people to adamantly believe Apple would never make a stylus, yet Purcher and Patently Apple reported on Apple’s patented idea at the time for an advanced smart pen that had low latency. That smart pen eventually turned into the Apple Pencil.
So while it may be impossible to tell which patents will directly turn into actual products and features, it can be fun to take a look at some of the latest Apple Watch patents and purse out which could be applied to Apple’s future lineup of software, services and hardware – and which are simply there “just in case.”
Face ID is now a staple feature of the iPhone, patents have shown that Apple is interested in bringing the tech to the Apple Watch as well. But how likely is it?
“It’s a possibility, obviously they had to miniaturize things a lot for the iPhone X so you have to go even a lot further to get it down to an Apple Watch size,” Slivka says. “Then you have the tacked-on battery life, that was the concern for the iPhone X.”
Plus, Slivka points out that putting a camera on the front of the Apple Watch would likely just be for Face ID, as people may not take to FaceTiming and taking selfies from their wrist. Would Apple spend that much for Face ID?
With the Apple Watch increasingly being used as a vehicle for contactless payments, it depends how much pressure the company feels is placed on the PIN security method. With FaceID now used to secure sensitive apps, there’s a case that the lack of security could hamper the Apple Watch from being used to biometrically access bank accounts, health records and more.
We’ve seen patents for Touch ID both on the screen and the Digital Crown – although with the Apple Watch already secured by PIN, we feel the company would opt to integrate Face ID rather than take a backwards step in older security technology.
Likely-o-meter: This could happen
Modular, expandable Apple Watch
Apple has secured a patent for technology that would allow users to upgrade parts of the Apple Watch, perhaps with more sensors. Modular technology has failed quite spectacularly on a consumer scale – see Blocks and Project Ara – and it seems way off piste to see it arrive on consumer Apple technology.
However, let’s not dismiss it out of hand. We’ve seen Apple patent technology for its smartwatch such as gas sensing technologies, which could have enterprise applications. Also, the long-standing speculation about blood glucose could be added-on, rather than compromise the design of the Watch itself.
Likely-o-meter: Unlikely, but not impossible.
Apple Watch driving features
Looking at your wrist for a notification while you’re driving is just as dangerous as looking at your phone. Apple has a patent that describes a feature which would use the Apple Watch’s sensors to determine if you were driving and then limit your notifications.
This is a feature already available on the iPhone, called Do Not Disturb while Driving. Purcher says that since it’s already available on iPhone, it’s likely to soon become reality on the Apple Watch.
Likely-o-meter: Bank on it in some form
Apple Watch gesture patents landed in 2016, but more recent patent reveal that a team is actively working on bringing hand movement recognition to the Apple Watch.
And with Apple Watch project lead Erik De Jong noted on the patent, this lends even more credibility.
The 2019 patent actually lists a bunch of possible gestures including:
- Palm face down to reject a call
- Extend thumb and forefinger to make a phone call
- Extend fingers to unlock your car as you approach
The patent goes on to show a cross-section of the human arm, looking at the bones, ligaments and tendons that would be monitored to read the gesture your hands were making.
The patent covers the possible use of “optical sensors, inertial sensors, mechanical contact sensors, and myoelectric sensors” to study the movement of hands and fingers.
And there are other patents too. Another 2019 patent also suggests that the Apple Watch, or some future version of it, could be used to control VR experiences. This time, the patent suggests veins in the hand could be tracked.
And another 2019 entry reveals that wrist movements could be used for dismissing calls.
Likely-o-meter: Certainly will happen – but maybe not on the Series 6
Apple Watch smart/sensor bands
This rumor has been bubbling around for some time now. Smart bands with built-in sensors that could allow your Apple Watch to better track your health.
Specifically, this set of smart bands would come with advanced pressure sensors that could check how much effort you were putting forth with your hands, like if you were doing a bicep curl or something.
It also could fit into more recent patents, like this smart blood pressure band. Likewise, more patents for smart band features have also landed, that could measure the orientation of your wrist for things like baseball or golf.
“If there are some medical sensors Apple wants to include in the Apple Watch, this could be one way to do it,” Slivka says.
“The other possibility is specialized sensors that not everyone might need and which might take up too much room in the watch itself. Moving them to the band perhaps gives you a new contact point on the body for measurements and can be sold separately only to those users who need that specific sensor.”
Likely-o-meter: Very likely we could see specialist applications in smart bands soon.
Apple Watch touch bands
Shades of Project Jacquard; this Apple patent would create woven fabrics that are touch sensitive, which you would then use to play music or adjust volume or other similar menu items.
Purcher doesn’t think this is a priority for Apple at the moment, but may invest in it to keep pace with Google and Levi’s on Project Jacquard. Slivka says cost and technological hurdles may mean this one is a way’s off.
But the band patents just keep on coming. One that caught the eye uses electrical signals to tighten a fabric band until it reaches the perfect fit.
Clever, yet an extraordinarily over-engineered solution. Given the price of standard Apple Watch bands, the price of a smart tightening one would be astronomic.
Likely-o-meter: Nice idea, feels unlikely
A round Apple Watch
The squircle that is the Apple Watch isn’t exactly the most beloved design of all time. It certainly works well enough if sales are your only barometer of success, but some people just want a round Apple Watch. Well, this patent certainly goes for that.
Slivka doesn’t see Apple going that direction, however. “That’s been something that’s been discussed for a while,” he says. “Obviously, that’s the traditional shape of a watch face but it’s not always ideal for displaying information like text.”
Likely-o-meter: Give it up
Expandable Apple Watch battery
Haven’t you wanted an Apple Watch with longer battery life so that you can actually use it for sleep tracking? Well, this patent would create an external portable charger you could use while wearing it. The bendable, possibly graphene battery would attach to the band while the connector would attach to the bottom of the Apple Watch.
Slivka says there was a company that was trying to do something similar, and that it’s technically feasible. However, he also points out a better solution would be to make a smart band with a built-in battery that plugs into a diagnostic port of some kind where the band connectors are.
Likely-o-meter: Can’t see this happening
Bendable, curved display
This is another big patent for the Apple Watch that’s been floating around for a long time. It looks and sounds futuristic and sleek as hell. You’ve got bendable displays that wrap around your wrist and you’ve got a round face that flows into the display bands.
We’ve seen the Oppo Watch use a curved display, and the forthcoming Amazfit X also promises to expand the size of the screen using the same idea.
The patent was actually acquired by Apple and is a utility patent rather than a design one. That utility is painted in a broad stroke rather than pointing to something specific for the future.
“So no, Apple Watch is unlikely to ever have that specific design, but they could design a future watch with a wraparound display as they’ve Apple hinted in a patent filing here,” Purcher says.
“With flexible displays advancing as quickly as they are and taking on very creative form factors, a completely different Apple Watch form factor could arise. Samsung is also working on a similar idea.”
Likely-o-meter: Seems unlikely, but competitors are testing the water in 2020.