Apple is exploring active phone and tablet bezels that would be able to dynamically change between giving a place to grip and extending the interface, maximizing the potential display space for small-screen devices that possibly includes the iWatch. The research, detailed in a new Apple patent for "Electronic device, display and touch-sensitive user interface", centers around a layered stack of displays and touch sensors around one or more edges of a device, which could selectively be activated for input use, or deactivated - and optically-blanked, obscuring any controls underneath - when not needed.
The idea is believed to be an extension of Apple's work on the iPad mini form-factor. There, the company opted for significantly narrowed side bezels, so as to ensure that the iOS tablet could be held in the grip of a single hand when in portrait orientation.
However, since the average book-holding grip would then put the user's thumb across the screen, Apple was forced to build in touch-rejection technology so that the contact wouldn't be registered as a tap on the display. Apple's patented approach, however, could selectively blank out sections of the interface running down each side of the iPad's screen, giving a place for the user to comfortably hold, while multimedia use could be maximized by activating the whole screen.
Although sections of the bezel that could be switched between fully transparent - potentially using electrowetting, OLED, LCD, or other methods - and fully opaque are suggested, there's also the possibility of more simplistic interface elements that could "light up" in some way. For instance, context-specific controls could be illuminated, allowing for scrolling or paging through ebooks perhaps, or a palette of colors offered for art apps.
It's not Apple's first experiment with active bezels. As far back as 2006 the company was patenting "scroll strips" embedded in the edges of devices, believed at the time to be the replacement technology to the iPod's scroll-wheel; that was followed in 2010 with touch-sensitive strips running around the bezel of an iPad-like tablet.
The following year, the controls graduated to "smart display" segments, which could illuminate to highlight sections of the bezel where touch input was supported.
The arrival of the iPad mini and, unofficial but widely-expected, the iWatch smartwatch makes better use of a small display even more pressing. Apple could, it's suggested, use this adaptive screen technology to switch the iWatch display between input and output, though whether the rumored 1.5- to 2.0-inch OLED screen the timepiece is tipped to have would still present enough room for anything close to content creation remains to be seen.