Apple granted patent for 3D user interface

21 Aug 2013

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The fourth-generation iPad with Retina display

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A patent filed by Apple last year and approved this week shows how the company is locking down its technology to allow users to interact with tablets using 3D gestures.

US patent No 8,514,221 is titled ‘Working with 3D objects’ and was published on Tuesday by the US Patent and Trademark Office. It was filed by Apple in July 2012 and cites Nicholas King and Todd Benjamin as its inventors.

The filing describes how users can interact with a computer’s touchscreen using gestures performed in proximity to – not on – the display surface. These ‘3D gestures’ can be used to transform 2D objects on the screen into 3D objects.

This 3D user interface introduces a third axis of control for user’s gestures. The location of the user’s fingers is detected through a combination of capacitive touch sensors and proximity sensors in the display.

Apple 3D UI patent image

Image from United States patent 8514221. Source: USPTO

Imagine there was a 2D triangle on your iPad display. With this 3D interface, users could place their fingers on the triangle’s points and ‘pull’ upwards to create a triangular prism. Thus, a 3D object has been created from a 2D one.

Apple 3D UI patent image

Image from United States patent 851422.1 Source: USPTO

The patent goes on to detail that users can determine the depth of an image by how far they pull up the 2D drawing. They can even manipulate the shape as they pull, for example, creating a pyramid from a triangle by pulling up and pinching three fingers to a point above the screen.

Further manipulation of the 3D images is enabled with different applications of the technology, allowing users to sculpt and fine tune objects with texture and colour.

Apple 3D UI patent image

Image from United States patent 8514221. Source: USPTO

The device used for this technology in the patent and the accompanying images closely resembles the iPad and this specific use case of generating and manipulating 3D objects would be well suited to apps built for computer-aided design.

Combine this interface with a 3D-capable screen and glasses and users might even be able to see the objects they are manipulating.

Apple certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on three-dimensional user interface design through this one patent. It doesn’t even have a product to market, yet, unlike pioneers in the field such as Leap Motion.

However, we all know how litigious Apple can be when it comes to its rival manufacturers and similarities that emerge in competitor devices. So, woe betide any that don’t study this patent carefully and ensure they don’t step on iPad-maker’s toes.

Elaine Burke is managing editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com