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Swappable sleeves could bring new controls to Apple Pencil

A possible future Apple Pencil wth mre controls

Last updated 4 minutes ago

Apple is researching whether interchangeable sleeves for the Apple Pencil could give users a choice of controls, sensors, or even extended battery life.

The Apple Pencil lineup has been accused of being confusing, and it’s astonishing that the 2015 first model is still on sale even after launch of the Apple Pencil Pro, but no one has complained about its battery life. Still, you can always do with more battery life and that is one element in a newly-granted patent called “Handheld Input Devices With Sleeves.”

“Electronic devices that are configured to be held in the hand of a user may be used to gather user input and to provide a user with output,” says the patent application. “The handheld input device may include a stylus and a removable sleeve on the stylus.”

“The input-output capabilities of the handheld input device may be shared between the stylus and the removable sleeve,” it continues. “The removable sleeve may include haptic output devices and a battery and may be attached to an item without electronics.”

All patent applications do their best to cover every conceivable use of their proposal, so this one talks of “controllers, handheld controllers, input devices, or handheld input devices,” before it ever gets to a stylus. But this last part about being attached to “an item without electronics” is different.

The drawings in the patent application attempt to illustrate this by showing a fork that has such a control sleeve wrapped around it. Rather than being like a band that attaches to an Apple Watch, this proposal is for a separate electronic device that works even without being attached to anything like a stylus.

“The sleeve may include conductors for translating touch input on the sleeve to the touch sensor circuitry on the stylus,” it says, “a deformable member for translating forces on the sleeve to the force-sensitive tip of the stylus, and visual markers that can be detected by an external camera and used with motion sensor data from the stylus to track the handheld input device.”

In short, you could wrap such a sleeve around a wand — and Apple does use the word “wand” — which you then wave about. Literally.

“If desired, gestures such as air gestures (three- dimensional gestures) with [the] device may involve additional input,” says Apple. “For example, a user may control [a] system using hybrid gestures that involve movement of device(s) through the air (e.g., an air gesture component).”

“As an example, an inertial measurement unit in device 10 and/or a camera in device… may detect user movement of device… through the air (e.g., to trace out a path),” it continues, “while a sensor… in device… such as a two-dimensional touch sensor, a force sensor, or other sensor 18 detects force input, touch input, or other input.”

Detail from the patent application showing a sensor sleeve wrapped around a fork

Detail from the patent application showing a sensor sleeve wrapped around a fork

So while the majority of the patent application concerns what sounds like a future Apple Pencil, it could also be a way to use technology in everyday items. One example drawing, for instance, shows a fork and it’s not a reach to see such a sleeve having motion sensors that detect how quickly someone is eating.

There is also that by wrapping a sensor-filled sleeve around a utensil, its movements could be tracked with a mixed reality headset such as Apple Vision Pro.

This patent is credited to two inventors, including the prolific Paul X. Wang. His previous work includes research into an Apple Pencil that could change shape to suit a user.

Update July 2, 2024: Patent has been awarded.