Two further patent applications published today and spotted by Patently Apple show that Apple continues to explore the idea of bringing a Watch-style Digital Crown to the iPad and iPhone. The original patent application was published back in July, and the two additional ones published today further refine the idea.

Apple has generally been moving away from physical controls on iDevices, the iPhone 7 replacing the mechanical Home button with a touch-sensitive one, and the iPhone 8 rumored to be embedding it into the display. We’re also expecting to see a near bezel-free design next year.

It was for this reason that the idea initially seemed unlikely …

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I first suggested it in an opinion piece last year – almost a year before the first patent surfaced. I wrote then that it was the experience of using it on the Apple Watch to scroll content that made me wish I had it on the iPhone too.

The Digital Crown was a large part of how Apple got the smartwatch right when others hadn’t yet cracked it. A fundamental problem with a small touchscreen is that touching it covers up much of the content. The Digital Crown overcomes that, allowing us to scroll content without our thumb getting in the way.

But while today’s iPhone screens may be larger than they used to be […] scrolling with a thumb still covers up a chunk of the content. Worse, it’s easy to accidentally tap on targets accidentally, including ads. There have been numerous occasions since using Apple Watch when my thumb started absent-mindedly reaching for the non-existent Digital Crown on my iPhone … 

The main refinement in the latest patents is the idea of offering haptic feedback in the rotary control.

This type of sensation can simulate the feeling of the user rotating a mechanical knob against the teeth of an internal gear (e.g., the feeling of a detent when turning a rotary input, such as the “click-click-click” feeling of winding a mechanical watch). 

Haptic feedback as described in this patent filing can give the user feedback about the effect of the user’s input on the electronic device, such as changing the zoom-scale of content displayed on the device in response to the user’s rotary input.

Last year, the majority of you rejected the idea of a Digital Crown on an iPhone or iPad, 53% opting for ‘no way’ in our poll.

Why go back in time and use something old when we have a touch screen on the phone?

[…]

Good grief, no! Less moving parts not more!

[…]

The Digital Wheel sticking out like that on the phone can very easily become damaged.

Only 16% definitely wanted it.

The thumbwheel was the best part of the BlackBerry. It all fell apart for them when they removed the thumbwheel.

[…]

A knob is the best controller for a number of things […] Volume knob, scroll knob, zoom knob, lots of contextual uses.

But given one specific concept described by Apple, it would be interesting to see whether views have changed.

The idea is a cube-based user interface in iOS, where turning the Digital Crown would rotate the cube, revealing different types of content. For example, one cube face might contain your normal Home screen, while another might contain apps you use in specific contexts, such as when at work or when travelling. Some people (me included) already organise their apps in this way, but a rotary control would provide another way to switch between them, perhaps then allowing flicking between multiple screens in each category.

Apple also describes using the Digital Crown to control the volume while listening to music, zooming in or out of a photo and resizing text.

Does any of this make the idea seem any more appealing? Or do you still think a rotary control has no place on anything larger than a Watch? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Digital crown concept images Antonio De Rosa

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