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US Trademark Office approves Apple patent that would give iPhones cat-like reflexes

Update: Though it was first filed over a year ago, Apple’s patent for intelligent dropping tech was approved earlier this week. On Tuesday (12/2/2014) the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved a patent filed by the company that would “[alter] the center of mass of the electronic device by moving the mass in the protective mechanism in response to detecting the freefall of the electronic device.” It’s still unclear if Apple actually has plans to implement this technology in its phones anytime soon, but it’s certainly an intriguing prospect. This article was originally published October 11, 2013.

Ever notice how falling cats somehow always land on their feet, and dropped toast will invariably hit the floor buttered-side down? Well what if you could harness that voodoo and install it in your gadgets? In the near future, this may very well become possible. If the technology described in a recent patent filed by Apple ever makes it past the conceptual phase, the next generation of iPhones could potentially be able to control how they hit the ground.

Patent No. 20130257582, otherwise known as “protecting an electronic device,” is basically a broad set of schemes that Apple has devised to keep your phone from landing on its screen or other vulnerable areas. The document outlines a number of different methods that could ostensibly be used to make this happen, and while some of them seem reasonable, others are just downright ridiculous

iphone moiton control dropIn Apple’s words, the core idea is this: “The electronic device may include a processor, a sensor in communication with the processor, and a protective mechanism in communication with the processor. The protective mechanism is configured to selectively alter a center of mass of the electronic device.” In plain English, this basically means iPhones could be equipped with a drop sensor processor similar to the ones already used in Apple laptops. Then, if a phone senses that it’s falling, the drop processor would communicate with a small motor to shift the phone’s internal weight and control which side it lands on. All of this would take place in a matter of seconds as your phone plummets to its doom.

Not a bad idea, right? Given the fact that the iPhone 5S is already equipped with a discrete motion processor and a small motor used for vibration, this doesn’t seem that far out of reach. With some creative programming, this could totally be possible. But other parts of the patent aren’t so reasonable.

Another section outlines a system that employs jets to create an “air cushion” beneath the phone just before it hits the ground.  The phone would use the same drop motion sensor to determine when it’s falling, but rather than shifting it’s weight and orientation, it would release pressurized gas to slow the phone down before impact. If you think that sounds ridiculous, keep reading. Later on in the document there’s a section where Apple talks about using an electric ion propulsion system to decelerate the phone as it falls.

It’s hard to tell how much of this to take seriously since Apple and other big tech companies tend to file outlandishly broad patents so they can claim ownership in the event that any of these ideas actually materialize in the future. But there are definitely a few good concepts in here. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for smart-drop technology in the iPhone 6. For the time being, however, it looks like we’ll just have to stick with good ol’ fashioned rubberized cases.

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