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Some of the recent reports that predict Apple will launch some type of "tablet PC" next month have mentioned that the long-rumored device will have 3D graphics.
So what does "3D graphics" really mean and how could it be implemented? I found a recently-released patent filing which I traced back to Apple (#20090303231, Dec. 10, 2009) and which discusses in great detail a "touch screen device, method and graphical user interface for manipulating three-dimensional virtual objects." If Apple chooses to incorporate some of the features it outlines in this patent filing, it could essentially mean that that user-interaction experience for the iPhone or a potential "Tablet" will be markedly different in some respects than the iPhone interface we're currently using. (The image above is taken from Apple's patent filing.)
According to documents filed with the USPTO, Apple obtained the rights to this patent application from three French citizens: Fabrice Robinet, Thomas Goossens, and Alexandre Moha. The inventors assigned the patent to Apple on Sept. 29, 2008. It's not clear if those citizens are Apple employees, per se. (Update: Actually, Mr. Moha is a product and engineering manager at Apple, per his LinkedIn profile; Mr. Robinet is a software engineer at Apple, again, per LinkedIn, and Mr. Goossens is an Apple software engineer (thanks to Baltimore's Bill Mill for digging up Goossens!) Regardless, searches under Apple's name in the patents database doesn't retrieve this patent, because the names of the original French inventors are still on it. (I wonder why that is? Hmmm. :-)
In patent filings, companies typically lay out a current problem or hurdle in a field of technology which they then propose, to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, that their new innovation will address.
In this case, the patent application states: "...[T]here is a need for electronic devices with touch screen displays that provide more transparent and intuitive user interfaces for navigating in three dimensional virtual spaces and manipulating three dimensional objects in these virtual spaces."
So, what is the essence of this patent filing and Apple's interest in it? Let me try and distill it for you:
*) This patent filing is meant to cover the implementation of three-dimensional image-handling on different types of devices, including multi-touch sensitive tablets.
*) The 3D images, or "virtual objects," that can be generated include an icon, a virtual game object or a virtual game character. Basically, your icons and characters on this device will have a three-dimensional quality in a two-dimensional space, which could lead to novel ways of interacting with the device.
Perhaps this - 3D graphics -- is the future of Apple's interfaces for its portable multi-function devices. What do you think?