Apple just patented an iPhone you can use underwater — unique new interface could power a simplified version of iOS

Apple patent showing an iPhone underwater
(Image credit: USPTO / Apple)

A new Apple patent filed in April 2021 and published Tuesday has revealed Apple’s ongoing investigation into an “underwater user interface” for iPhone that could power a future waterproof version of its most popular devices. 

While Apple’s best Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Ultra 2, can be used as a dive computer at depths of up to 40 meters, Apple’s iPhone range, including the newest iPhone 15, remains merely “waterproof.” You can drop one in the bath, sink, or pool and keep using it with no trouble, but it doesn’t have any kind of “built-in” underwater functionality. Try actually using it at the bottom of the pool or in the waters of your bath, and you’ll have some issues.

The patent published this week reveals that an iPhone of the future could detect when it’s placed underwater, adjusting the user interface to display a simplified version of iOS that is easier to use beneath the waves. The mammoth patent is 78 pages long and seems to encompass nearly every aspect of iOS. 

iPhone under the sea

According to the patent, with the advent of more waterproof and water-resistant devices, more users are using their devices for water-based activities including when those electronic devices are wet or underwater. To this end, Apple says that its bog-standard iOS operating system can be “cumbersome and inefficient,” taking longer than necessary and wasting energy, as well as using up battery power. Apple says that current methods for displaying user interfaces while a device is underwater are “outdated, time-consuming, and inefficient,” requiring multiple key presses or keystrokes and more. 

Apple says its new patented method will provide faster, more efficient methods for using a device like an iPhone underwater. While this patent doesn’t really cover hardware, it is obvious from its existence that Apple envisions a future where iPhones are fully waterproof and can be used underwater in a variety of ways. 

Apple patent showing an iPhone underwater

(Image credit: USPTO / Apple)

The patent shows drawings of an iPhone underwater, hilariously depicted by two rudimentary fish and some waves. The iPhone displays a typical iOS interface with apps but includes an icon in the status bar to show the device is in underwater mode. This version of iOS wouldn’t automatically display an underwater interface, but rather it would open the interface the first time you enter an app or mode. One section of the patent shows a more linear menu of apps that can be navigated using the iPhone’s volume buttons rather than scrolling with your finger, before using the Lock button to select the app you want. 

Apple patent showing an iPhone underwater

(Image credit: USPTO / Apple)

Beyond navigating to apps, specific apps themselves are shown with simpler underwater interfaces. For instance, the camera app would use the volume buttons, rather than the pinch gesture, to adjust the zoom level. While the patent is extremely complex, at its heart it demonstrates how you could use a future waterproof iPhone with a simplified interface to take pictures underwater using the iPhone’s mechanical buttons rather than touch input, which is notoriously difficult to use in wet conditions. 

As this patent has only just emerged in Apple’s portfolio, we definitely wouldn’t expect an iPhone 16 Pro Max you can take scuba diving this September. It’s clear however that Apple is at least considering a future iPhone with simplified underwater functionality for when waterproofing technology finally makes that vision a reality. 

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Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design. Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9