It was recently reported in a wide number of news outlets that Apple might be extending its wearables range beyond smart watches, by developing a new product in the form of a smart ring. This is an expanding market which already has several major players including the Oura ring and the Motiv ring, with Amazon also having announced the launch of its Echo Loop device. The story was based on Apple being granted a patent directed to a “wearable electronic ring computing device”.
Speculation about details of the next Apple product is always rife, and leaks from the company’s supply chain are keenly analysed for clues. But the publication of patents also provides a plentiful source of information. Websites like www.patentlyapple.com are dedicated to monitoring patent activity in order to guess at new products that might be in the pipeline.
Will the Apple smart ring ever come to market? Who knows. Other Apple patents that have previously prompted speculation about potential future products range from smart bedding for monitoring your sleep and smart gloves for potentially monitoring your blood pressure, to an interactive 3D hologram, a system for disabling iPhone cameras at concerts, and a crumb-repelling keyboard.
For a company like Apple, it is true that every significant feature of a product which does come to market is likely to be protected by patents wherever possible. (As Steve Jobs announced in his keynote speech launching the original iPhone in January 2007: “Boy have we patented it!”). So the details of actual future products are likely to be lurking somewhere within their patents, waiting to be discovered by those willing to look. But the forest of patent publications may also include any number of inventions that never make it that far. Some may be speculative applications filed in the early stages of a new technology; others may relate to promising ideas that were simply never pursued, or were patented to generate licensing revenue from other companies, even if not exploited by Apple itself.
More generally, patent publications can be a great source of technical information, and can be explored using free patent databases, such as the European Patent Office’s Espacenet. The UK Intellectual Property Office has continually promoted the message that a lot of investment in R&D is wasted because the technology is already available in a patent document. And although some of this technology may be protected by a patent, often it is in fact free to use as the patent has expired, been withdrawn or lapsed.
So whether you are trying to second-guess the next Apple product or draw on research that others may already have carried out to solve a technical problem you are facing, patent databases can provide a valuable source of information.