Apple was today granted a patent for detecting touch-free gestures at close range, the patent language suggesting that the approach could build on the capabilities of multi-touch and 3D touch to respond to fingers hovering close to an iPhone or iPad display, as well as use on keyboards and trackpads.

The patent describes using sensors similar to the proximity detectors used to disable accidental touch input on the iPhone screen when you’re holding the phone to your face during a call. Unlike longer-range gesture technologies like Kinect, the system would detect ‘hover events’ just above the surface of the screen …

In addition to detection of touching events, the detection of fingers, palms or other objects hovering near the touch panel is desirable because it can enable the computing system to perform certain functions without necessitating actual contact with the touch panel.

Apple notes that some functions could be activated by proximity alone, while others could act on a combination of touch and proximity – effectively expanding the capabilities of a multi-touch screen to include non-touch gestures.

The patent notes that the proximity sensors could offer the same pixel-level coverage as touch sensors, or the display could alternate touch sensor rows with proximity-detection rows. Alternatively, it could be employed more selectively, covering only part of the display.

The patent doesn’t limit itself to touchscreen devices: it also describes ways of using the technology for things like creating a virtual keyboard on a trackpad. Part of the patent also describes more mundane uses, such as replacing the existing proximity detector in today’s iPhones.

As always, we note that Apple patents literally thousands of things that never make their way into products, and its patents for touch-free technology date back many years. In this case, though, the company does at least have a demonstrated interest in gesture interfaces, acquiring Primesense – the company behind the gesture-detection technology used in Microsoft’s Kinect – back in 2013.

Via Patently Apple