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Future HomePods could feature touch-sensitive fabric for more controls

Apple's current HomePod plus (right) detail from the patent regarding how controls could be added to the fabric covering

Instead of the HomePod solely being controllable by taps on the top touch area, Apple is working on touch-sensitive fabric to allow users to control the speaker anywhere.

Apple's current HomePod is most often controlled via Siri, but it comes with a touch-sensitive display that allows for basic play/pause, and volume controls. A new patent suggests that this will be added to, or conceivably replaced, by touch controls built into the fabric sides of the speaker.

"Fabric-Covered Electronic Device with Touch Sensor," US Patent No 20200073511, details how it could be possible to register a user's touch on any device that includes fabric. Potentially this could even be used for products such as a smart battery cover for an iPhone.

The patent attempts to include every possible application of touch-embodied fabrics, ranging from "a laptop computer," and "a wristwatch device," to "a pendant... [or] a device embebdded in eyeglasses," and so on. However, the specifics of the patent continually refer to audio speakers.

"Electronic devices such as audio devices may include fabric," explains Apple's patent application. "As an example, the housing of a speaker may be covered with a layer of fabric. Openings may be provided in the fabric to allow sound to be emitted from within the device."

However, the patent is about more than how many holes there must be in the fabric to allow sound to be played. It's also about usability.

"It may be challenging to enhance the functionality of a speaker," continues the patent. "For example, it may be difficult to integrate input and output devices into a speaker with a fabric layer. If care is not taken, the user may find it cumbersome to provide input to and receive output from the speaker."

The aim appears to be that a HomePod user will be able to touch any side of the speaker to perform at least basic volume control. This could be more convenient than having to reach the top of the speaker, for instance if the user has positioned the HomePod atop shelves.

Apple's system could utilize "conductive strands in the layer of fabric," or have a touch-sensitive substrate underneath the fabric. In either method, audio playback controls may be shown on the side of the speaker either though areas lit from within, or from markings on the fabric.

One possible new speaker covering is this
One possible new speaker covering is this "Warp-knit fabric"

"Light-emitting components and/or fabric with different visual characteristics may be used to mark where the touch-sensitive regions of the fabric are located," says the patent. "The touch-sensitive regions may be shaped as media control symbols."

The patent is credited to five inventors, namely Zhengyu Li, Elvis M. Kibiti, Ming Gao, Qiliang Xu, and Chen Zhang.

Zhang was recently named on a patent regarding touchscreen MacBooks, while Xu is credited as an inventor on a patent for haptic feedback on the Apple Pencil.

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