Patents Point to Hybrid Displays, Smart Bezels in Future iOS Devices

Apple (s aapl) may be working on hybrid displays that have all the benefits of e-ink and LCD, with none of the downsides, and interactive bezels that increase the usable surface area of iOS devices. That’s according to two newly published patents (via Patently Apple and AppleInsider) that provide tantalizing glimpses behind Apple’s aluminum and glass curtain.

Hybrid Displays

You may have seen Amazon’s commercials for its Kindle e-reading device. In the ad spots, we find a frustrated iPad user who can’t enjoy the device outside under the bright sun. The premise of the commercial is accurate enough: reading on a backlit LCD or LED display under sunlight is much more difficult than reading an e-ink screen like that found on the Kindle (s amzn). The problem, of course, is that current generation e-ink screens don’t have refresh rates high enough to display video, don’t work in the dark and don’t display color (or don’t do it well, at least, though that is changing). A newly published patent filed by Apple in 2009 would solve that problem by combining the best of both worlds into one intelligent hybrid display.

The display would apparently feature “composite display regions” where it could alternately show content using either e-ink or video display modes, depending on the type of content being viewed. The patent describes settings for switching between the two display modes, and for selecting how it is automatically triggered. For example it could be automatically switched from one to the other by calculating the rate of change or color composition of the content being displayed on the iOS device.

Not only would such a system combine the benefits of both types of displays mentioned above, it would also provide more power savings for iOS devices by switching to the less power-hungry e-ink tech when that’s all circumstances required. Doing could considerably extend iPhone and iPad battery life, since the Kindle with its e-ink display can go weeks without charging.

Smart Bezels

The second newly published patent describes an interface system that includes a “smart bezel” that would act as a secondary display for information and user guidance purposes. Illuminated icons could then appear on an iOS device’s bezel, and change based on what’s going on with device software. These would provide instructions for using the app or system, while also staying out-of-the-way of the actual content being displayed on-screen. The patent describes simple yet flexible configurations for these indicators that can be used by developers to issue custom instructions to a device user.

Another part of the patent describes how controls positioned on the backside of an iPad might use this sort of secondary display configuration to provide visual cues of how to use the controls with the software being displayed on the front screen. Obviously a user wouldn’t be able to see these at the same time as they use the app, but they could check quickly and easily for reference before going back to using the device. Sony’s upcoming successor to the Playstation Portable (s sne) has touch-sensitive control surfaces on the back of the device, but a secondary display would help make such a feature easier to use.

One possibility not mentioned specifically in the patent is that Apple could also use this secondary display for system or app notifications. iOS notifications is an area that a lof of users aren’t happy with, and one where a flexible secondary display system seems to have ample potential.

Patents Aren’t Products

As with any patent, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that these technologies may never see the light of day. But they do provide an unparalleled glimpse at the kinds of things Apple is and has been working on away from the prying eyes of the public and the media. And these two particular patents make sense for Apple, because they either solve existing usability complaints for its devices, or introduce elements that could potentially make its devices even easier to use.