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Apple's universal connector invention looks to do away with adapters

In a patent application on Thursday, Apple laid out plans for a universal connector that bridges the gap between a number of data transfer protocols, thereby limiting the types of receptacles needed on a given device.

Universal Connector

Illustration of modern computer with receptacle (170) and connector insert (150). | Source: USPTO

As a side effect of the booming growth of consumer electronics, a multitude of different connectivity protocols have been invented to transfer data between devices, each bringing its own specialized connector. Attempts have been made to create standards, however consumers are still left with a plethora of choices, from USB to HDMI to the recently-implemented Thunderbolt.

Apple's aptly named "Universal connector" filing looks to solve some of the problems associated with owning more than one electronic device by creating an adaptive receptacle that can interface with a variety of formats.

The filing explains the problem:
Customer confusion may also result as users try to sort through a bewildering array of acronyms. Design complexity may also be increased. For example, to avoid damage, each new connector may be constructed such that a connector insert from a cable that supports one interface cannot be improperly inserted into a connector receptacle for another interface.

Also, as these standards and interfaces evolve, devices with newer connectors may not be compatible with a user's legacy components. For example, a new computer may have an HDMI connector, while a monitor may have a DVI connector. An adapter to convert signals from HDMI to DVI may be used, but such necessity invokes further customer dissatisfaction.

Apple itself suffers from the problem of multiple interfaces, most recently announcing that it would be shipping a Lighting to Digital AV adapter compatible with its current iDevice lineup.

Sample Insert

Sample connector insert.

To deal with the ever-growing issue, Apple presents a connector receptacle that contains "a number of relatively small pads or contacts arranged in an array or other pattern," with the pads able to be placed on any surface within the cavity. The pads can be individually configured to be ground, power, or signal lines, depending on what type of connector is inserted into the receptacle.

For example, each insert may have a unique pad arrangement which identifies the connector insert as being a connection for a specific interface, such as a USB, HDMI, DVI, power, Ethernet, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, or other type of interface. In a specific embodiment of the present invention, each of a number of connector inserts may have a similar pad pattern, with one or more pads omitted, where the omissions indicate the type of connector insert.

Receptacle Pads

Illustration of receptacle pads with insert overlay (dotted lines).

While the receptacle itself doesn't change shape to accommodate the various cable types, the inserted cable can be formed to fit the receptacle, or can be free to move in the connector after insertion. Instead of having contacts dedicated to certain signal or power paths, the pads within the receptacle can be dynamically assigned, thereby offering support for a number of differently shaped inserts. The filing notes that springs or other methods can be used to force electrical contact.

Pad Arrangement

Variant arrangement of pad array.

Once a cable is inserted, the connector determines which pads need to be activated through harmonics, frequency or signal readings, and other methods. Fiber optics are also supported by the invention.

It is unclear if Apple will use the technology in an upcoming product, but as more and more transfer protocols are introduced with no end in sight, such a solution would be a welcome addition to any computer.