If Apple’s latest round of patents is any indication, wearables could play a key role when it comes to operating any future Apple VR/AR headset.
First reported by Patently Apple (opens in new tab), Apple recently won a pair of patents related to the use of finger gestures with a virtual reality headset. The patents cover wearables such as the Apple Watch or a potential VR glove to register finger gestures in a variety of applications.
Apple’s VR future is currently a bit of a mystery. Rumors suggest the comany is working on a mixed reality headset to possibly come out in 2023, with Apple Glasses following after that. While these patents seem focused a future VR/AR headset, they could, in theory, be applied to either type of device allegedly in Apple's pipeline.
Apple VR/AR Headset: Finger gestures
Finger gestures are a key part of these two patents from Apple. Without getting too into the weeds, these patents focus on sensing a signal at one body part, referred to as the sense electrode, in response to a signal sent from the other body part, known as the drive electrode.
In practical terms, this refers to using wearable devices to sense finger gestures that execute actions in VR/AR. This can be as simple as pinching two fingers, or as complex as a sliding gesture using your fingers on your other hand.
These gestures have a wide range of applications. In fact, there are so many potential applications listed in the patent information (and possibly more besides) that we wouldn't be able to include them all here. However, highlights include moving an object such as a cursor or pointer or scrolling and panning, which we potentially see illustrated in the drawings submitted with the patents.
Another highlight we may see involves the ability to end a telephone call. This could conceivably be executed with the finger-pinching movement that is illustrated in the patent application. There are several gestures that relate to phone use, so it seems possible that Apple intends its VR/AR headset to work with at least some of its iPhones.
Apple VR/AR Headset: Dual Apple Watches, VR gloves and finger cuffs
The one thing that is clear across both these patents is that Apple requires two wearable devices for these finger gestures to work. This is because the VR/AR headset needs to be able to detect both the sense electrode and drive electrode, and cannot do that with only one wearable device.
One option shown in the patent applications is to have the user wear two Apple Watches, one on each wrist. This would have some benefits for Apple, who would not need to create a new device for this functionality, and could potentially harness the computing power of each Apple Watch rather than simply using them as sensors (though that is entirely speculative).
However, that could be a problem for consumers. An Apple Watch 7 currently starts at $399. The idea of buying two watches, plus the VR/AR headset seems out of touch with the realities of the average consumer. So, this could be a concept that stays in the realm of developers and enterprise users.
The other wearables that stand out from Apple's patents involve the use of finger cuffs and rings, which are shown in the patent drawings, or a potential VR glove. A VR glove could eliminate the need for a second Apple Watch or even make it so that you don't need a watch at all. That would make this technology (potentially) much more accessible to the average consumer, so it will be exciting to see if it ever comes to fruition.
Of course, any time we discuss patents, we need to point out that they're not an indication of what Apple will end up using to control its AR/VR products, if those are even in the works at all. We should find out more about Apple's plans in 2023, when the rumored headset is most likely to appear.