A new patent shows that Apple has been working on adding lasers to a future iPhone, and also to Apple Watch. Before you imagine this is Apple getting caught up in some curious weapon system, it’s nothing like that. But it’s pretty exciting and could add some extraordinary features to the phone and the wearable.
Patently Apple reports that Apple could be adding Horizontal Cavity Surface-Emitting Lasers (that’s HCSEL to you and me) to a future iPhone and Apple Watch, positioned under the display.
These could be used for different functions such as biometrics, refining the capabilities of Face ID or Touch ID, it seems, or perhaps leading to the return of Touch ID to future iPhones. And, by the way, this is not the first patent to suggest that the Apple Watch could gain biometric recognition capabilities.
But they could also be used for the detection of particulate matter and therefore be able to report air quality, the patent says. It suggests this would happen when the laser was used “in combination with a photodetector”. A recent vacuum cleaner from Dyson uses green laser light to show up dust motes your vacuuming might otherwise have missed. So, to use a laser to show particulates in the air could be beneficial.
The lasers could be integrated into the Watch or iPhone alongside personal data to “authenticate a user to access their device, or gather performance metrics for the user’s interaction with an augmented or virtual world”.
So, gaming possibilities are being considered, too. This being Apple, of course there are considerations for fitness features, too. “Health and fitness data may be used to provide insights into a user’s general wellness, or may be used as positive feedback to individuals using technology to pursue wellness goals.”
It also says, “In some cases, one or more of the camera 1010, components 1014, and/or I/O devices 1016 may include one or an array of HCSELs or optoelectronic devices”. This is also interesting as it hints that Apple may be thinking of using lasers for part of the camera’s operation, as the Pro iPhones use LiDAR to help with focus right now.
Throughout, this patent is full of the dense and flat language that typifies such documents and I recommend it to insomniacs. There are lots of abbreviations—as well as HCSELs, there are EELs, that is, Edge Emitting Lasers. There are even references to “out-of-plane coupling,” though as far as I know this is not a particularly dangerous way to join the mile-high club. Then there’s a mention of art: “However, it will be apparent to one skilled in the art, after reading this description, that the specific details are not required in order to practice the described embodiments.” The art, I think, is the art of reading and understanding such documents as these. I mean, it’s not exactly John Grisham, now is it? Of course, that’s the point, to reveal as little as possible while claiming ownership of as much as possible.
As this is a patent, there’s no clue as to when, or even if, Apple will build lasers into the iPhone, but let’s hope it does. And soon.