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The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday granted Apple a patent for a touch-sensitive bezel that can serve as a secondary mode of input for devices with small screens, as well as change from transparent to opaque upon sensing a user's finger.
Apple's U.S. Patent No. 8,477,114 for "Electronic device, display and touch-sensitive user interface" describes a method of deploying a touch-sensitive bezel which extends over a portion of a portable device display, and can hide or reveal that area on command.
The patent describes a system in which a portable device's display is partly overlapped by a touch-enabled bezel that is either partially, or entirely, light-transmissive. In the patent, the screen is split into two sections, the uncovered "active viewing area" and the covered "second portion" of the display.
When embedded sensors detect a finger is in close proximity or touching the device, signals from the controller trigger the second portion to illuminate, thereby changing the appearance of the overlaid bezel. The patent outlines a number of bezel state changes, including simple color-changes and light transmission, to more complex embodiments where the bezel itself turns from opaque to transparent.
For example, the second portion to illuminate briefly to indicate a touch or near touch, or may remain lit until a second touch event is detected.
In this implementation, the extended bezel area serves as a type of window through which a user can see the device's display. The bezel can be made from a number of materials such that the window disappears from view when the second portion of the screen is not illuminated. Thus an illlusion is created where the window portion of the display is "hidden" until a user triggers a touch event.
According to some embodiments, color changes and text or graphics can be displayed in the second portion of the display which, in concert with the bezel's touch-sensitive capabilities, can create a secondary form of input.
Any number of masking technologies can be applied to the bezel window, though the patent notes circular polarizers or electrowetting techniques as particularly viable potential candidates. In non-portable applications where power consumption is not a critical issue, plasma technologies can be applied.
Interestingly, the property appears to be from Apple's recent Kodak patent buy, as the application was divisional application to an invention assigned to the struggling photography pioneer. The technology jibes with other Apple patents regarding touch-sensitive or otherwise interactive bezels, however, including one dating back to 2006.
While mere speculation, the patent could conceivably be used in a wearable computing device, allowing for pleasing aesthetics while maximizing utility. Apple is widely rumored to be planning a wristwatch-like product, dubbed the "iWatch," which many believed will be dominated by a multitouch screen. Most recently, the company has been on a worldwide "iWatch" trademark application spree after making a number of filings earlier in June.
Apple's "smart bezel" patent was first filed for in September 2012 and credits Michael E. Miller, Jerald J. Muszak and Michael J. Telek as its inventors.