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Wednesday, October 13, 2010, 10:25 pm PT (01:25 am ET)

Apple awarded several key multi-touch patents

A batch of approved patent applications from Apple issued by the U.S. Patent Office this week include descriptions of significant multi-touch innovations, such as pinch-to-zoom and knob controls.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office posted Tuesday 18 approved patents by Apple. The patents range from the design of accessories such as Apple's wireless keyboard and universal dock to groundbreaking development of the iPhone's multi-touch interface. Several patents among this most recent group build upon previous patents awarded to Apple that protect the company's research into multi-touch gestures and interfaces.

Perhaps the most significant of Tuesday's patents is that for a "Portable electronic device with multi-touch input." The application includes drawings of early mock-ups of the iPhone and its interface.

The patent application describes a method of detecting one or more contacts on a multi-touch-sensitive display and performing a corresponding operation. Multi-touch gestures listed include "magnifying, zooming, expanding, minimizing, resizing, rotating, sliding, opening, closing, focusing, flipping, reordering, activating, deactivating and any other operation that can be performed on a graphical object."

The document goes on to detail an "intuitive" zooming feature. "A user can place an index finger and thumb on the sides, edges or corners of the graphical object and perform a pinching or anti-pinching gesture by moving the index finger and thumb together or apart, respectively," it noted. "The operation initiated by such a gesture results in the dimensions of the graphical object changing."

Pinch to Zoom


Also included in the application is the use of multi-touch for "parameter adjustment." By interacting with a graphical object, such as a virtual knob, users can touch the display to adjust volume and other parameters. In a description of the process, the document notes that the software would employ a customizable timer to allow the user to break contact with the device while adjusting a parameter and then reestablish contact to continue the operation.

Knob Control


Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone software, is listed as one of the inventors, in addition to Bas Ording, Greg Christie, Stephen O. Lemay, and Imran Chaudhri. The patent application was filed on Dec. 29, 2006, just weeks before the announcement of the original iPhone.

Other notable multi-touch related patents awarded Tuesday are for a "Simultaenous sensing arrangement" and "Ellipse fitting multi-touch surfaces". The latter describes a method for tracking a users' fingers and palms and identifying functions such as "typing, resting, pointing, scrolling, 3D manipulation, and handwriting" based on intuitive hand configurations.

It is as yet unclear to what extent Apple will be able to protect the patents issued this week. Before Google's release of its G1 smartphone, Apple reportedly asked the rival to leave multi-touch out of the handset. The G1 did lack a pinch-to-zoom feature, suggesting that Google had complied with Apple's alleged request, although multi-touch eventually made its way into the Android OS and onto several Android-based handsets, including Google's own Nexus One.

Earlier this year, Apple went after handset maker HTC for alleged infringement of 20 of its patents. "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said regarding the HTC case. "We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

Nokia and Apple are also involved in a legal battle over patents. Last week, Motorola joined the fray by suing Apple, accusing it of violating 18 of its patents.