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Apple might be working on an Apple Watch with a foldable display

Published Mar 23rd, 2021 7:42PM EDT
Apple Watch
Image: jummie/Adobe

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The Apple Watch has had almost the same design since the first-generation model that launched in 2015. The smartwatch comes in two sizes, both featuring the same rectangular screen. Apple tweaked the design a few years ago with the Apple Watch Series 4 models, increasing the screen-to-body ratio by reducing the bezel and reducing its thickness. But we did see rumors of Apple Watch redesigns before, with the most recent one concerning the upcoming Apple Watch Series 7 models.

Apple never confirms rumors and speculations about unreleased products, but there’s something it can’t hide. Patent applications filed to protect its innovations are routinely discovered, revealing the kind of innovations the company might be working on behind closed doors. One such patent shows an Apple Watch design unlike anything Apple has released so far.

The USPTO just awarded patent number 10,957,678, as found by MacRumors. Titled Display module and system applications, the documentation was filed in mid-November 2019, at a time when the world’s first foldable smartphones were already available in stores. The Galaxy Fold launched last year, although a few key design issues crippled its launch.

Apple Watch Patent
From the patent: “In the embodiment, illustrated in FIG. 10, the wearable electronic device 400 is illustrated with a blacked out display area of the display panel 215, 315. For example, this may indicate a state in which the display panel is turned off.” Image source: Apple via USPTO

The patent shows images of a device that looks like a futuristic type of wearable you’d see in the movies. The smartwatch features a foldable screen that folds around the screen, extending the display all the way to the watch bands.

One immediate problem with such a design is that it would leave less room for customization, as the device would not feature detachable bands. But the band’s display area could feature customizable faces, the same patent explains, similar to what Apple offers for the watch faces on current Apple Watch models.

More interesting is the main display, which offers more screen real estate to the user. Apple makes a point to observe that the bezels can be significantly reduced by using a flexible OLED panel. “A bezel width surrounding the display panel can be minimized, for example below 4-5 mm or even less than 1 mm, less than 0.5 mm, or eliminated,” Apple writes.

The Watch would include a display with a “plurality of interconnects” that extend “through the display substrate from the front surface to the back surface, and an array of LEDs are in the display area and electrically connected with the plurality of interconnects.” Key components, including the battery, processor, multiple ambient light sensors, and others, would be fixed within the enclosure behind the display unit.

Apple Watch Patent
From the patent: “FIG. 5C is schematic front view illustration of a display substrate including an alternative arrangement of an array of LEDs and micro chips in a display area 201 and a plurality of through vias directly beneath the display area 201, where the array of micro chips 216 do not overlap the plurality of through vias 204, 206 in accordance with an embodiment of the invention. For example, the plurality of through vias 204, 206 can be interspersed between the micro chips 216 as illustrated in FIG. 5C. In the exemplary embodiment illustrated in FIG. 5C, wiring 212 is illustrated connecting the plurality of through vias 204 and LEDs 214 to the array of micro chips 216.” Image source: Apple via USPTO

Apple acknowledges one issue with devices with flexible displays. The OLED screen might be sensitive to air and moisture degradation without a protective rigid glass cover, but some OLED display technologies might be appropriate for the new design. The first Galaxy Fold smartphone featured a plastic display cover on top of the foldable display. A couple of design issues that were not caught in internal testing proved to be fatal, allowing early reviewers to destroy the OLED screen with ease and render it useless. The current Apple Watch models are meant to be worn in all sorts of conditions, and they have to withstand accidental drops, bumps, and water splashes. An Apple wearable with a wrap-around screen should meet the same standards.

The Apple Watch design shown in most illustrations does not feature the iconic Digital Crown button found on current Apple Watch devices. But MacRumors found a separate patent published on Tuesday for a Capacitive gap sensor ring for an input device. That patent describes a Digital Crown-like button featuring two nested capacitive rings that move against each other to provide various functions.

Apple Watch Patent
From the patent: “FIGS. 11-12 illustrate states of where the display panel is displaying different images. For example, FIG. 11 may display a watch design A, including watch face and band and FIG. 12 may display a watch design B, including a watch face and band. Any number of displayed images are possible.” Image source: Apple via USPTO

Apple isn’t the only company that’s toying with this particular smartwatch design idea. Chinese device maker Nubia launched the Nubia Watch last year, although it’s not what we’d call a massive success. Designing foldable devices continues to be challenging, regardless of the company making it.

There are no guarantees that Apple will ever make a foldable Watch with a wrap-around display or that the Apple Watch design will change anytime soon. As always with patented tech, this document indicates Apple is interested in pursuing such design ideas for its devices. Apple is also expected to launch a foldable phone in coming years and has patents that describe smartphones with wrap-around screens.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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