Apple about to make texting while walking safer?

By March 31, 2014
main tenant un smartphone transparent

Apple has filed a patent for technology it calls ‘transparent texting’, designed to make life safer for iPhone users who want to read or text while walking.


As smartphones are inherently mobile, they are widely used by people ‘on the go’. While this is just fine for making voice calls, it can prove dicey when you need to focus intently on the screen, when reading or texting for instance. Quite apart from the antisocial aspect, using your smartphone while you are walking along could be dangerous as it means you are not paying attention to what is happening around you. However, if smartphones had a transparent display or functionality which gave the illusion of a see-through view ahead, users would be more aware of their environment. It is this need that prompted Apple to file a patent request for technology it calls ‘transparent texting’. The idea is to replace the background of the mobile phone’s text messaging app with a continuous live video feed from the device’s rear-facing camera so as to help a user who is sending texts while walking along to avoidstumbling into obstacles. Apple’s patent request, which was filed as long ago as September 2012, accrediting one Stephen T. Payne as the inventor, has now resurfaced on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database (via ‘news and rumours’ site AppleInsider), indicating that Apple may be preparing to make ‘see-through’ functionality available on its devices.

Smartphone camera creating ‘see-through’ effect.

The implementation of the technology as described by Apple in its patent application is fairly simple. The smartphone will use its camera to capture a continuous video film of what would be the user’s field of vision as s/he is on the go. The video will be running in real time as background to the mobile text messaging app being used. The result gives the illusion of a transparent background display with text overlay. The patent describes how users can activate the ‘see-through’ feature by pressing a ‘transparency’ button within a texting session to switch on the video feed. The functionality would then display text bubbles – which could be opaque or semi-transparent – overlaid on to the live background video.

Different applications of the transparency feature

The patent description says that “alternative embodiments of the invention can be applied to virtually any computer-executable application in which text is presented over a background”. There might be a number of potential extensions of the concept of transparent texting, including replacing the background of a webpage with a live video feed so that the website text is overlaid on to whatever scene the device user is moving through, or even replacing the static white background of an e-book so that iPhone users on their way to work could keep reading their iBook without bumping into any lampposts. While not a completely fool-proof system – to achieve full visibility, users will need to point the iPhone camera straight ahead while walking – Apple's invention indicates that the company is currently looking into ways and means of leveraging existing hardware technology in order to enhance the mobile experience. It is not yet known whether Apple is planning to work a transparency feature into its next iOS version, but if so the technology required is already in place in the device.

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