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Apple advancing research on 'smart ring' concept for wireless device control

The Amazon Echo Loop. Credit: Amazon

Apple is continuing to develop, refine, and expand its concept of a finger-worn, smart ring that could be used to wirelessly control nearby devices, or interface with an augmented reality peripheral like the rumored "Apple Glass."

The company first applied for, and was granted, a smart ring patent back in 2015. Since then, Apple has applied for a steady series of continuation patents for a range of smart ring features and functionality.

In a new patent application published by the U.S. patent and Trademark Office on Thursday, Apple refined the concept of the potential Apple Ring. Mostly, it appears to have broadened the language it's using.

Past ring-related patents specifically called the device a "wearable ring device" with assorted functionality. In Thursday's continuation patent, Apple has switched to calling it a "wireless finger-worn device" with a touchscreen or touch-sensitive surface, perhaps to better protect its intellectual property.

"A wireless finger-worn device configured to be disposed on one or more fingers of a hand of a user, comprising: a touch-sensitive input device; one or more tactile output generators; one or more processors; memory; and one or more programs, wherein the one or more programs are stored in the memory and configured to be executed by the one or more processors," the patent reads.

As with past patents, the bulk of the claims here deal with a ring-like device that could accept touch input to control "an external electronic device." Past rumors and patents have suggested that the ring device could be used to control smart televisions, an iPhone or another electronic device.

Apple goes into specifics about the type of functionality that the device could having, noting that it may be used to change the appearance of a user interface element on another device's display, or adjust the volume and screen brightness of that device.

Although the continuation patent doesn't necessarily introduce any significant new capabilities to the ring, it does appear to be aimed at protecting the concept of an "Apple Ring" in a market that's very different than it was when Apple first started exploring a finger-worn wearable. Amazon in 2019, for example, actually introduced a smart ring device equipped with Alexa. Importantly, however, that device is controlled by voice or a physical button — and not a touch-sensitive display component like Apple's concept.

Past Apple ring patent applications also suggested that the device could be controlled via hand gesture, and may use some type of Ultra Wideband functionality — perhaps via a U1 chip — to broaden the scope of its features.

The company has taken steps to introduce new abilities to its ring concept, including an expandable form factor. In November 2019, Apple also suggested that the ring could work alongside "Apple Glass" or another type of augmented reality device.

Apple's latest patent lists Marcos Regis Vescovi and Marcel van OS as inventors. Notably, both of them have been listed as inventors in the bulk of Apple's past ring-related patents and patent applications.