A new Apple patent filing, first spotted by Patently Apple, may reveal work on the input device for the company’s upcoming headset.
The Information, Bloomberg and Kuo now all claim Apple will release a sleek VR headset in 2022 with color cameras for mixed reality. It’s expected to be standalone like Facebook’s Oculus Quest but thinner, lighter, higher resolution and more powerful.
The reports so far say little about input, but The Information mentioned Apple exploring a “thimble-like device to be worn on a person’s finger”.
A patent application filed this week, titled Self-Mixing Interferometry-Based Gesture Input System Including a Wearable or Handheld Device, describes an input device consisting of two finger rings able to “track a user’s finger movements with reference to any surface, including, in some cases, the surface of another finger, the user’s palm, and so on“.
The filing states this device “may in some cases be used to provide input to an AR, VR, or MR application“.
Current VR controllers are seen by some as too complex, but hand tracking on its own lacks any tactile feeling. It’s not particularly comfortable to hold your hands in the air. Facebook’s Oculus Quest uses a thumb-index pinch gesture, but if your finger is at the wrong angle or the lighting isn’t great in the room it can fail to trigger.
Apple’s patent describes its device as using a technique called self-mixing interferometry (SMI). The device contains a number of these SMI sensors. Each emits a short range directional laser beam. The beam reflects off nearby objects back into the laser itself, which apparently interferes with the original light. A photodetector measures changes in the ‘interferometric properties’ of the light.
From this sensor data, the device can apparently determine collisions between fingers, nearby objects, and even nearby surfaces. Apple could, potentially, turn any surface into a useful space for tactile input.
The filing even cites the example of detecting when the user is holding a stylus, and potentially even providing useful information on what’s being drawn.
As always, it is important to note that patent filings only rarely lead to real products. Companies like Apple explore many product and technology approaches, but ship only a small fraction of these ideas. That said, the device’s resemblance to the “thimble-like device” described by The Information should not be ignored.