Sidewall PatentSource: USPTO

What you need to know

  • A newly-published Apple patent shows how Apple could use sidewall displays in a mobile device.
  • It's based around flexible displays that are bent to cover the front and the edge of a device.
  • The side displays could supplement the front of the device with information or virtual buttons and feedback components.

An Apple patent published today, December 31, has revealed technology that uses flexible displays to create supplemental, "sidewall" displays in a mobile device.

As reported by Patently Apple, the patent is titled "Electronic devices with sidewall displays" and the abstract states:

Electronic devices may be provided that contain flexible displays that are bent to form displays on multiple surfaces of the devices. Bent flexible displays may be bent to form front side displays and edge displays. Edge displays may be separated from front side displays or from other edge displays using patterned housing members, printed or painted masks, or by selectively activating and inactivating display pixels associated with the flexible display. Edge displays may alternately function as virtual buttons, virtual switches, or informational displays that are supplemental to front side displays. Virtual buttons may include transparent button members, lenses, haptic feedback components, audio feedback components, or other components for providing feedback to a user when virtual buttons are activated.

The patent is the latest to be published in a series of similar designs that shows Apple has been exploring ways to incorporate supplemental displays in its devices. The patent is essentially based around a flexible display, possibly OLED, that could be molded to fit the edges of a mobile device in order to replace the input/output functions of buttons like the volume and lock buttons on the iPhone. Rather than multiple displays, Apple is exploring using one display that would bend or flex to cover both the front of the device and sidewall. As you'll note from the image, this is not like an edge-to-edge screen you might see in a Samsung phone, as the sidewall and front displays are separated by housing to give the appearance that the two are separate.

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In terms of function, the active parts of the display can be used to create virtual user interface controls, like buttons for input:

For example, the user input interface elements on the sidewall of an electronic device may be repurposed for supporting user input operations in different operating modes of the electronic device. Virtual buttons on the edge of a device may be provided in place of tactile input/output components such as physical buttons and switches or may be formed as part of a dummy button structure or other mechanical feature. >

Note too that these buttons could change depending on what you're doing with your device, so think of it like the Touch Bar on the MacBook:

During operation of an electronic device, a virtual button may be, for example, a virtual volume button for controlling audio output volume and maybe repurposed based on user input to become a virtual camera shutter button for taking a picture or may be reconfigured to serve as a controller for another device function. Images displayed on the flexible display may indicate to a user which function is currently being performed by the virtual button. Predetermined inputs to the touch-sensitive layer on the edge of the device (e.g., tapping, sliding, swiping, or other motions of an external object such as a finger across the edge of the device) may be used to change the operating mode of the device.

Of course, this being a patent, there's no guarantee we'll ever see this tech in any of Apple's devices. However, it's certainly an interesting concept. Whilst using displays to replace buttons might increase utility by drastically increasing the number of functions you could perform on the sidewall of a device, would a move away from physical buttons for locking, volume and mute be a positive one? Apple's physical mute switch is one of Apple's most steadfast iPhone features. That being said, mechanical buttons can attract dirt, become sticky or simply break. Maybe a virtual "sidewall" of buttons could increase reliability. Who knows? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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