Apple working on embedding sensors behind a display, resulting in smaller bezels

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Apple is researching how to move sensors from the bezel, and placing them in the screen itself, making it possible to have edge to edge displays on a future iPhone, or even an iMac or MacBook Pro.

It's what so many iMac users want, and what iPhone users have had — if the bezels around a screen can be reduced, displays can be bigger without increasing the size of a device. Apple has been criticized for the notch on the iPhone, cutting into the display, and the large bezels are all that stop the 2012-era design of the 27-inch iMac from still looking modern.

It's what so many iMac users want, and what iPhone users have had — if the bezels around a screen can be reduced, displays can be bigger without increasing the size of a device. Apple has been criticized for the notch on the iPhone, cutting into the display, and the large bezels are all that stop the 2012-era design of the 27-inch iMac from still looking modern.

A newly revealed patent application shows that Apple is of course looking into bezel reduction. "Sensing System for Detection of Light Incident to a Light Emitting Layer of an Electronic Device Display," is ostensibly about detecting ambient light — but it's really about placing the detector within "an active display area of a display."

"An electronic device can include a display formed from a stack of functional and structural layers (a 'display stack') attached to, or otherwise disposed below, a protective outer cover," says Apple. This isn't a cover as in the Smart Cover, or an extra item that you close over the screen, it's the top of the device, including the bezels.

"[This] protective outer cover defines an exterior surface of a housing of the electronic device," continues Apple. "An electronic device can also include a light sensing system, such as an ambient light sensor. Typically, a light sensing system is positioned below the protective outer cover, adjacent to, and separated from, a light emitting region of the display stack."

And there's the problem. "As a result, a conventional electronic device incorporating both a display and a light sensing system typically requires a large-area protective outer cover," continues Apple, "that extends beyond a periphery of the display stack to reserve space to accommodate the light sensing system."

If you can't put a sensor under the actual display, it has to go on the side. "This conventional construction undesirably increases the apparent size of a bezel region circumscribing the display, while also undesirably increasing the size and volume of the housing of the electronic device," says Apple.

This patent application goes into detail of how an ambient light sensing system interoperates with the rest of a device, but the key part is how it can work without covering up the display. "The individual light sensors of the light sensing system coupled to the controller are disposed or formed directly onto one or more layers of the display stack that defines the active display area," continues Apple.

Detail from the patent showing how light sensors might be embedded between the pixels of a display
Detail from the patent showing how light sensors might be embedded between the pixels of a display

"More specifically," the patent goes on, "the individual light sensors are disposed in inter-pixel regions of the active display area. [Or] the individual light sensors of the light sensing system are disposed additionally or alternatively along a perimeter of the active display area, adjacent to pixels that define the active display area."

So a screen might show us an image made up of individual pixels, but between those pixels, it is looking out to sense light. Or if it isn't interwoven between every pixel, the sensor might be arranged around the edges of the display.

There is one more suggestion in this patent application, which is that such a sensor could be in the display, but not across the whole screen. "For example," it says, "the light sensing system can include multiple groups of individual light sensors disposed in different portions of the active display area."

That could be that Apple places copies of the sensor in, say, the four corners of the display. "As a result of this construction, the light sensing system may be able to detect light incident to the active display area," continues Apple, "even if one or more of the groups of individual light sensors is occluded or covered by a user."

Apple has investigated similar ideas before, including seven years ago when it applied for a patent about using embedded sensors in an OLED display. Most recently, Apple also applied for an under-display light sensor, which could again reduce the size of the notch.

The notch, introduced with the iPhone X, contains far more than an ambient light sensor. So this patent application can't see Apple moving every element of the notch underneath the display, but it's a start.

This patent is credited to eight inventors, including Mohammad Yeke Yazdandoost, whose previous work on devices includes a patent regarding user input surfaces.

 

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