back to article Apple files disappearing-feature iPhone patent

Apple has filed a patent application for the ability to hide some of a device's components – such as its camera, biometric sensors, or even its entire display – until they are needed. "Electronic devices are becoming more and more sophisticated, capable of performing a multitude of tasks from image capture to identity …


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  1. cyke1

    um, how can this be patentable? Just from figures it looks like something every phone has had in some form for 10+ years

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Er, really? Name one single phone that has a sensor covered by a shutter to hide it.

      I'm not saying this is a good idea, or patentable, but to my knowledge it hasn't been done before.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Just because something hasn't been done before for a given form factor doesn't make it patent-able.

        The technology behind a finger print reader is patent-able, the technology behind making calls is patent-able, putting the two together is obvious... also it doesn't require any invention...

        However, this is the USA and apparently slide to unlock is an invention (despite that I use a slide to unlock mechanism on many toilet doors...)

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Yep, has been done. I can think of cameras with pop out and automatic lens covers. Been in a phone? No doubt a Japanese one. I don't really care, you cannot patent this idea. You might be able to patent a specific mechanism, but not "a cover". :/

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          This is a different idea. Lens covers are to protect the lens, not to hide it.

          Again, not saying the idea is or should be patentable but it's definitely not in every phone for the last 10 years or even one single specific phone I can think of.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        > Name one single phone that has a sensor covered by a shutter to hide it.

        My N900 has a shutter over the camera lens.

        1. Eddy Ito


          It isn't a shutter it's this stuff in a color that matches the case which, I might add, is twice as many colors as a certain Mr. Ford sold his Model Ts in. Don't really see how that makes a dust cover novel since it's just window dressing, literally. Don't worry, I'm sure Apple has a design patent card, that I'd likely concede, ready to play just in case a little sanity takes over at the patent office and they realize this isn't utility patent material as it doesn't doesn't really do anything that isn't merely ornamentation or lack thereof.

      4. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        My Nokia 6220c

        It had a little shutter covering the camera. Anyway, the idea of blank surfaces which turn into displays when needed has been a sci-fi film staple for decades.

      5. Danny 14

        "Er, really? Name one single phone that has a sensor covered by a shutter to hide it."

        Just about any android phone with a back and menu capacitive backlit button. I have had at least 3 android phones from different manufacturers that have had "faceless" buttons that cannot be seen until they are needed, they then light up and are usable before fading away to be non-usable in some cases.

        capacitive buttons are sensors (it could be argued resistive ones arent). The patent mentions nothing of shutters, only hiding the buttons or functions behind PDLC, no sensor is "exposed to the air" and shut away.

        Im not sure of the quality of pictures taken from behind PDLC either.

        1. Znort666


          "Im not sure of the quality of pictures taken from behind PDLC either."

          See iOS6 Apple Maps...

        2. John Robson Silver badge

          Samsung Galaxy phones....

          Android menu buttons...

      6. DuncanMcKnuckles

        Sony Cybershot phones have had these throughout the ages.

      7. Davidoff

        Name one single phone that has a sensor covered by a shutter to hide it.

        Sony Ericsson P990i (around 2006, camera covered by a shutter). And this wasn't the only one, others like the K750i had something similar.

      8. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Samsung Galaxy Note

        And other related devices

        When you're not using the "menu" or "back" touch-buttons (i.e. capacitive sensors) they disappear from view. When your phone determines that you need it, it lights up.

        Or hiding TVs behind a one-way mirror?

        Even pop-up headlights could almost fall under this; they're a useful tool for the car but hidden until required.

        The actual mechanism of using a liquid crystal as a blind has been around for ages- it has even been on Grand Designs years ago. And using blinds and curtains to obscure things of interest has been used as long as blinds and curtains have existed. So no novel step there.

        The only novel step here is "it's on a phone".

    2. toadwarrior

      Feel free to list examples then.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Guaranteed to get fandroids climbing on their high horses.

      Anyone ever thought these patent snippets are just journalistical trolling?

      1. Ted Treen

        Re: AC 07:10

        "Anyone ever thought these patent snippets are just journalistical trolling?"

        Frequently - and I believe it's beyond doubt when the article carries a Leach by-line.

    4. Erwin Hofmann

      how ist this even patentable ...

      ... there is a sinister line to this nonsense ... patents are actually quit expensive and only the very rich can afford to patent all the little "brain spits" they can think off ... remember Kane Kramer (UK) who came up with the hole design and marketing concept of the iPod, about 20 years before Apple (Apple admits this in 2008) ... check Kramer's concept design sketches (Patent/Wikipedia) ... but his company just couldn't afford to hold the patent ... and that's that, the rest is history ... think about the consequences. Inventors already have to spend more time in researching patent databases then they will spent on their inventions ... and more often are being stopped and frustrated by established, general, broad, patent descriptions ...

      On a food note: Sometimes I wished Apple would invent a way that would make it self and it's products disappear ... on the push of a button or, better, on a finger swipe on the screen ...

  2. billse10


    it's not patentable, not to any sane patent office.

    USPTO on the other hand, not so sane. People who run it, not so much. People who let them run it, there are questions to ask there.

    1. Kristian Walsh Silver badge

      Re: @cyke1

      So, why isn't this patentable?

      I'm no fan of Apple, but this is a new idea that has not been used elsewhere, and certainly not in the domain they're proposing.

      The patent is to make certain parts of the device visible when the're needed, and invisible at other times. Something similar has been achieved before with mechanical shutters, but the inventive step (i.e., the patentable bit) here is achieving this through the use of an existing material that can selectively change its opacity.

      1. Rob

        Re: @cyke1

        At least a couple of phones on the market now that have touch buttons that appear on the case when the unit it brought out of standby, so not really that inventive, Apple have just taken it one stage further, which I think is a smart idea if developed well but not patentable which is what the argument with Apple and it's patents is always about.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @cyke1

        Camera behind screen.. ever used an ATM? sure its in a wall but the idea is the same, so maybe they can patent a technological way of putting a camera behind a screen, but not the idea...

        Hidden fingerprint scanners, well the idea has been there for years, just watch a bit of sci-fi, so no win there either

        I think that a hidden scanner that appears after sliding the bolt to unlock is dumb, just have it visible and use to unlock...

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @cyke1

        I take it that you've never used stereo equipment or a universal smart remote? Even in the 80's there were receivers that lit up buttons that could be used... archaic, but fundamentally the same. Displays can be turned off on many dvd and blu-ray players until needed.

  3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Holy stuff!

    Clearly, the apes in 2001 didn't know about "slide to unlock".

  4. banjomike

    Apple patents 'The Door'

    Can't be long until they do.

    1. Anonymous Custard

      Re: Apple patents 'The Door'

      iCurtains is more what came to mind.

      1. stanimir


        iCurtains are also known as eyelids

        1. TheOtherHobbes

          Re: iCurtains?

          Or maybe Windows[tm].

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Apple patents 'The Door'

        You say that and for some reason I keep thinking of electronic piss-flaps, don't ask me why, my brain must be in one of those moods today.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    err two things here...

    firstly dont finger print readers need physical contact between the sensor and the finger?

    secondly, surely that extra layer in front of the camera is going to negatively effect camera image quality a little?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: err two things here...

      "surely that extra layer in front of the camera is going to negatively effect camera image quality a little?"

      No - it will just throw a little purple around the edges... :)

    2. Captain DaFt

      Re: err two things here...

      But that's a feature! Let the hoi-polloi take "naked" pictures with their common phones, you're taking "Apple dressed" pictures! (Now with Instagram like... er, Apple filters™ feature built in!)

    3. Jolyon Smith

      Re: err two things here...

      Only if you hold it wrong.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Actually it would make the image BETTER

      The reason iPhone 5 has the purple flare is because the lens is flush with the back of the phone, which it wasn't in previous iPhones (and all/most other smartphones) If you put your iPhone in a case that comes a few mm away from the back of the phone, the purple flare is gone. The inset required for the shutter would serve the same purpose.

  6. SkippyBing


    It's like those transparent toilet doors that go opaque when you lock them. On a mobile device.

    1. Arrrggghh-otron

      Re: So...

      And like Windows with an LCD layer that darkens when required - thereby hiding the outside world when not needed. there you go, prior art. I'm sure I saw them on Tomorrows World when I was a kid...

  7. gort

    I claim Maxwell Smart's shoe-phone as prior art.

  8. MR J

    My Samsung has this!

    My samsung monitor has this... When you run your fingers along the bezel then the buttons all light up, when they are not lit you cant see them!..... Some may argue that it is not a "Shutter" but there is a good chance that these "Shutters" will be more akin to e-ink than mini blinds.

    1. Esskay

      Re: My Samsung has this!

      That's a good point actually - are Apple patenting the idea of "shielding" a sensor from view? or specifically doing it with PDLC?

      Either way I think patenting this is ridicuous -

      a) the tech behind PDLC - patentable

      b) the tech behind (for example) a fingerprint reader - patentable

      Using technology a) at the same time as technology b) is surely simply a method, not an "idea" or a "design" - not patentable

      I think I might apply for a patent to use WOODEN SPOON in conjunction with EGGS, WATER, SUGAR and FLOUR to make CAKE.

      presumably then any method of compining those ingredients in order to make CAKE will owe me royalties?

    2. Arrrggghh-otron

      Re: My Samsung has this!

      Hasn't various B&O kit had hidden buttons for years?

  9. gkroog

    Another Patent Land-grab...

    ...This time covering technology to prevent their precious shiny-shiny phones from looking like...phones ;)

    Also, how much electricity do these PDLC windows use?

    Because there will be at least three or four on a phone, and they'll be used quite often, so unless power consumption is truly minute, you'll see a further measurable drain on battery charge. Great idea Apple ;D

  10. Gob Smacked

    US of Apples

    ..and no more.

    Everything patented by 1 single corp. The rest of the world can enjoy the freedom of choice.. :)

    Hiiiiii-hah !!!

  11. Gene Mosher

    I have had hidden buttons, context-sensitive buttons and user-sensitive buttons on my ViewTouch point of sale interface since 1987. I have also had Microsoft style Metro buttons on it since 1987.

  12. ~mico

    Great idea!

    They should hide their entire phone, or better yet, their entire company behind such window, until someone needs it

    (hint: never).

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "the electronic device may expose the concealed components by causing the electronic window to change opacity, allowing the components to suddenly appear as from out of nowhere."

    Probably telling of the kind of people that work at USPTO that Apple (who let's face it, probably know them quite well) couch their specs in language that only just stops short of, "As if by magic! Hurray!"

    Also, as a Brit ex-pat in N. America, I've decided that from now on people who say, "from out of," instead of, "from," get punched.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You'd just punch them from out of nowhere?

  14. mrd
    Thumb Up

    In a minority of one I guess

    But it seems pretty obvious that no one has done this before: hidden controls behind a state change material so they are 'invisible' until required. Having a physical camera shutter is not the same thing at all because you know where the camera is because its physically still apparent.

    Seems like a neat way of doing things if they can get around the technical problems that would no doubt come around due to having a layer between some of those interfaces and the user.

    But that's not the right song to be singing these days. I believe that one goes something like this *clearing throat*

    iSheeple will love this because Apple invented a rectangle with rounded shutters and they'll stroke their goatees into their latte while they queue because my screen is bigger and yeah!

    1. Esskay

      Re: In a minority of one I guess

      "In a minority of one I guess"

      Well I guess that solves the mystery of everyone's downvotes then...

  15. Black Betty

    Feeping Creaturism at it's finest.

    From its introduction of the Mac, Apple has built their devices with a minimalist human interface and then "inovated" with (more and more frequently) patented methods and procdures designed around overcoming the limitations of that minimalist interface.

    Damned near every bloody thing coming out of Apple seems to be built around one overriding criterion:

    Can it make a fanboi maik squee?

    One button, translucent cases, sleek lines, rounded corners, pretty colours, "go faster" stripes, hide the buttons altogether.

    Imagine if the current crop of so called innovators got in on the ground floor with power tools: The Makita pistol grip, Ryobi double hand grips, Black and Decker 8-ball speed selector. Palm grip or fingerwrap? Pushbutton or trigger switch? Slide, push, pull, twist or toggle?

    Perhaps people would like pushbikes where only Raleigh has a monopoly on a grip which places one hand either side of the pivot point and everyone else must make do with a tiller.

    Oh and a freebie to Samsung and the others. Slide a thumb downwards on either side of screen to unlock, just like the thumblatch once found beneath the the crescent moon.

    1. Franklin

      Re: Feeping Creaturism at it's finest.

      Those might not be such good examples. Black & Decker has applied for a patent on the speed selector (application #20120222879, filed 09-06-2012). They had a patent on power tools with a grip containing a built-in power switch, granted in 1917. Ryobi has a patent on their power tool hand grip (patent #6796389, granted 09-28-2004). They also have a patent on a wheeled cart made out of a bent rod or tube (patent #6065189, granted 05-23-2000). Makita has held several design patents on the design of the grips of their power tools, now all expired, dating back to the early 1990s.

  16. frank ly

    Camera Lens

    If I can't see it, I don't know where to _not_ put my greasy finger.

  17. Thomas Kenyon

    Even Nokia did this

    Wasn't there a raft of cheap nokias a few years ago that had a second display hidden in the case that came to life when you knocked it a couple of times, then completely disappeared? I certainly remember seeing a couple.

    1. Sirfoxelot

      Re: Even Nokia did this

      Nokia had the 7280 and 7380 that had a mirrored glass on the front hiding the screen.

      when the phone was activated the screen became visible from behind it

      There was also one of the Nokia 6xxx series flip phones that had this I believe

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Even Nokia did this

        Of course, they could extend the ethos of the Lightning connector's bi-polarity and put a screen on the back as well as the front, so it doesn't matter which way up you leave it. Kind of like that Terminator 2 trick.

  18. Tristan Young
    Thumb Down

    Apple owns the USPTO

    How can Apple get a patent for technology which already exists, and has already been deployed?

    Whether it's a window which turns opaque, a little sliding door, or friggin' curtains, it's the same concept that's been used on all-in-one cameras for many years. All Apple has done is take someone else's idea, and move it one tiny step forward, by changing the type of material the cover is made from. I've seen this tech in TV shows and movies, where hidden controls on a touch-based interface suddenly reveal themselves, like a fingerprint reader.

    It doesn't even solve the problem of fingerprints on the window causing a loss of contrast and clarity for the camera sensor. In cases like this, a moveable door (motorized or otherwise) would still be better.

    Patents like this are proof the USPTO is a corrupt organization, that is owned by large, unfriendly corporations such as Apple.

  19. Quinch

    Obligatory webcomic reference

  20. Bored_Stupid


    Is this not a pretty damn good description of what happens with the two softkeys at the bottom of my galaxy?

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Previous Art:

    Sony Ericsson C510.

    Nice little phone camera with a solid sliding backplate that hid the camera completely.

  22. Michael Shaw

    what is patentable

    It is patentable to take existing patented designs and patterns and combine them in a new way. Some companies make their money that way.

    The problem is, the patent office does not face a financial penalty for granting trivial patents, its society that suffers for patents on trivial and obvious things, so there is no incentive for patent offices to search for prior art, and the "not obvious to someone skilled in the area" becomes translated as "this patent officer had not thought of it before"

    I have had ideas of mine patented by companies employing me, and will at somepoint file patents of my own. patents (and patent insurance policies) are weapons for a software company, which on occasion are there to be used. Based on the way the international level is changing, this is going to be increasingly important for european companies to avoid US competitors obliterating them should US filed patents become enforceable in europe.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nokia Aeon or the phone from the 2009 film echelon conspiracy. me thinks its a bit like that!

  24. Danny 14

    depends what you mean by "sensor"

    My sharp TV has capacitive buttons. Depending on which screen I am in depends on which ones light up and are accessible. If none are applicable then they are all dark and you cannot see them or access the function (disabled). My galaxy S2 also has buttons that are hidden and non functional until needed. I would sure class a capacitive button as a sensor - that is how they work. Surely this is the same thing?

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    a phone like this.

    Nokia Aeon or the phone from the 2009 film " Echelon Conspiracy", i think its more on that idea.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: a phone like this.

      GZT650,or Sony Ericsson Pureness 2, they have something along the lines of the what apple are thinking.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Take your smartphone out of your pocket, it doesn't matter which brand, trust me. Now look at the screen and use the features, oh wait what's that, can't do it because your phone automatically hid the screen in a battery saving plummet into darkness.

    After I tried this on my phone, I wanted to do a little search and found the previously hidden search button really handy.

    Except non of this really matters because Apple patents in the US are actually corrections to a missing log of patents that should have been credited to Apple before any prior art. Not many people know this but TV and Film studios are paying licensing fees to Apple because of patent infringement in shows like The Tomorrow People and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  27. Badvok

    Even as an ardent self-confessed fandroid I'm starting to get sick of the Apple bashing on the comments pages here.

    iLike this innovation and I think it is definitely a patentable concept - if design patents are allowed that is. While clearly not an actual invention it is certainly a design innovation that I have never seen before. The idea that a scanner/camera is hidden from view in the smooth uniformly coloured face of the device until it is needed sounds great.

    And in answer to some of the other commentards:

    This is in no way similar to something that is always there but lights up to indicate its presence, i.e. buttons or screens.

    This is in no way similar to a lens cover that opens and shuts, this is a permanent lens cover that alters its transparency.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You are almost righht wth those two points

      This patent is not THE SAME as "something that .. lights up to indicate its presence" or a physical cover that opens and shuts, but it is a LOGICAL EXTENSION of those ideas, is therefore obvious and not patentable.

      Not to mention the prior art on this specific mechanism.

      1. GavinC

        Re: You are almost righht wth those two points

        if it is so obvious, then why has no-one else done it?

        What prior art? I am not aware of any devices which do this currently.

        1. Keep Refrigerated

          @GavinC Re: You are almost righht wth those two points

          Apple hasn't done it either yet... they basically just patented an idea that anyone who has either (a) read/watched a decent amount of sci-fi for the last 30 years or (b) works in the hardware industry, has probably already had - but never thought patentable.

          Apple patents things that other people have already thought of, but have too much decency and self-respect to claim they are suddenly the sole inventors (without doing any actual inventing).

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This seems very similar to the virtual controls on my decks.

  29. daveeff

    dont get me start barred

    Don't all computers have features that are only visible when you want them? The difference here is they are hardware sensors not software widgits and they are hidden / revealed again by h/w.

    A start button that brings up a list of programs, a command typed that displays a program...

    Come to think of it, my display is a plain black surface until you press the "power on" switch and then all the stuff you want appears - magic!

    I am amazed at what the US will allow you to patent.

  30. Glostermeteor

    If Apple get this as a patent that really will bring the bar even lower with regards to corporate greed and outlandishness. How can you patent a concept like that? Anyone heard of a cover for your tablet or mobile phone? That hides components until they are needed. Or what about a curtain on your window? That also accomplishes the same thing. This concept has been around for thousands of years, so for Apple to claim they have invented is completely beyond the pale. They are nothing more than a band of rip off merchants and highway robbers!

    1. GavinC

      i'm not sure what kind of curtains you have in your house, but last time I closed my curtains, it was still blindingly obvious that there was a window there. The day I close the curtains and can no longer see where the window used to be then you may have a point, but until then this is a new concept that has not been done before.

      1. Ben Tasker

        but until then this is a new concept that has not been done before.

        Which in itself is not sufficient for a patent. As others have said, it's a logical extension of existing tech which would be obvious to any practitioner in that area.

      2. Test Man
        Thumb Down

        You should get yourself a decent pair of lined curtains, then.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Prior art

    Office 2000? had a feature where it used to hide half of the less commonly used menu items.

  32. Solly

    Hiding elements of a phone when not in use you say? My phone can do this already, it called a pocket...

    Mines the one with the iPhone in the pocket....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Mines the one with the iPhone in the pocket...."


      Mine is the one with the feature limited phone in the pocket.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Soon to appear on a samsung device I'll bet. I wonder if samsung actually monitor the patents Apple files to get a head start on copying them.

    1. Keep Refrigerated

      @Anon 10:20 - It's the other way round...

      Apple monitors the things other people physically invent, then patent the next logical step...

  34. This post has been deleted by its author

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Here we go again...

    It's obvious, it has tonnes of prior art, and it will be used to stifle innovation.

    Business as usual at Apple, then.

  36. NightFox

    Cool, kinda like the drinks holder in my car.

  37. Purlieu


    I know a better way of making an iPhone disappear

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Ha

      Don't iPhone owners pull them from their arse already?

  38. EvilGav 1

    Oh dear lord

    Just because it can now be done "electronically" or "mobile" doesn't make it patentable.

    Numerous compact digital cameras have had "hidden" lenses, whereby the "on" button makes it appear, which would seem to cover the "mobile" element.

    And as numerous people have pointed out, most of the current crop of Android phones have buttons that don't "appear" until you activate the phone.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    More apple shite!

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    These articles are useful.

    It shows us who all the know-alls are.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Others have made whole rooms disappear for ages:

    So the application of using this type of technology to hide things is nothing new.

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