What's next for Apple in Wearables?
The buzz in Apple’s latest earnings release was the massive growth in their wearables business. Tim Cook remarked in the conference call that wearables had “another blowout quarter”.
Where is Apple looking next in the Wearables space? We'll walk through some of their recent patent publications for some clues.
One clear area of focus is earbuds, specifically looking at the fit of the earbud. A very recent publication is an earbud design for a better fit in the ear canal (“Earbud Stability Anchor Design”, US Patent Pub #2020/0021903). This earbud includes a rectangular “anchoring feature” that can be adjusted and wedged against the users ear to keep the earbud in place, labelled '304' in this image from their patent publication.
The anchoring feature slides over the main portion of the earbud, and the angle of the anchor could be adjusted to accommodate different ear shapes. There is even provision for a small locking mechanism to hold the anchor in place. The anchor allows the earbud to wedge itself in the ear and stay in place. This should also achieve a better seal which results in better audio performance for the user. I’m curious if this could be manufactured in such a way to satisfy the wide array of ear shapes in the population. Or perhaps this could be an add-on accessory by itself that could slide onto an existing earbud. Certainly an interesting idea.
Another earbud-related application is more towards achieving a fit which will enable use of more sensors in an earbud (“Earbuds”, US Patent Pub #2019/0306613). For complex sensors such as a photoplethysmogram (PPG) sensor, a direct connection with the user’s skin is critical. A loose-fitting earbud is incapable of achieving a proper fit. This application discloses a different earbud shape to enhance the fit and enable more sensors in earbuds. In this patent application, the earbud includes a small ‘elastomeric loop’ to wedge the earbud into the ear, instead of the more solid ‘anchoring feature’ used in the previous application.
This idea may resolve the issues of fit across a wide variety of ear sizes and shapes, but I’m not sure this has the durability or look of a product that would sell hundreds of millions of units.
Curious to learn more? There are more images and deeper discussion of both these applications in our full report.
Health & Fitness
Sensor integration for health and fitness is another focus area. The most interesting application involves detection of tremors in a patient using a wearable device ("Passive Detection of Dyskinesia/Tremor Symptoms", US Patent Pub #2019/0365286). The patent application specifically mentions treatment of Parkinson’s disease as a possible use for this technology. The team at AppleInsider also reported on this publication last month. The invention centers on collecting accelerometer and gyroscope data from a watch or other wearable computer and processing that data to detect instances of tremor or dyskinesia. The images in the patent application make clear their intention is to use an Apple Watch as the sensor.
This could be useful for the patient in a dynamic scenario, but also useful for health care workers to download long-term data to evaluate progression of the disease and even assist in treatment and medication protocols.
There are more details in our complete report, including a discussion of the actual frequency domain processing technique for detecting the tremors that's disclosed in the application.
There’s another interesting invention for using your Apple Watch or other wearable to access features in your car (“Enhanced Automotive Passive Entry”, US Patent Pub #2019/0297457). Yes, there are already apps that allow you to lock and unlock doors with your device, but the idea in this application is to actually make your Apple Watch or iPhone the keyfob by using existing transmitters and antennas to determine proximity of your wearable device. So you don’t even need to access the app, the door would automatically unlock when the device is present.
What’s next at Apple in Wearables? That’s always hard to answer, but by analyzing their recent patent publications we can identify areas of focus. Based on what we've seen, I’d expect to see new earbud shapes and designs, and integration of more sensors for health and fitness across their entire Wearable portfolio.
We'll certainly be watching....
Note: All figures from US Patent Publications at www.uspto.gov.