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Apple's 'Kinected' Kitchen

A series of patent and patent application assignments reveal Apple's interest in appliance control systems that combine touch screens and Kinect-style object sensing.

In March, inventor Timothy R. Pryor assigned his interest in three patents and 10 patent applications covering methods for interacting with automobile telematics equipment and home appliances over to Apple.

Executed on March 30, 2010, and recorded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on May 3, 2010, the transfer of intellectual property -- presumably for a significant fee -- suggests that Apple is making a serious effort to develop products related to home and vehicle systems automation.

The various patents and patent applications have to do with the control of machines, specifically through a combination of touch screens and video sensing. They include titles like "Man Machine Interfaces For Entering Data Into A Computer" and "Programmable Tactile Touch Screen Displays And Man-Machine Interfaces For Improved Vehicle Instrumentation And Telematics."

One of the patent applications, Control of Appliances, Kitchen, and Home, describes a home automation system that relies on touch-panel controls and a video object sensing system that's similar in concept to Microsoft's Kinect video game control system.

"Machine vision sensing, coupled with suitable computer software, can also, as disclosed in my referenced applications, determine gesture commands in space made by a person, and can determine various features of the person or objects they are working with, or in some cases their movements and action," the patent application says.

Pryor's patent application proposes touch-enabled appliance surfaces that can control a multitude of appliances and "can ease kitchen and house work, while allowing the user to share time for home functions with Internet shopping, social networking and the like."

The system might even assist with food preparation via touch-enabled kitchen counters, which would verify ingredient measurements through optical sensing and provide links to online recipes. One suggested embodiment of the proposed system floats the possibility of being able to "cook on the screen," a scenario that would clearly add some excitement to touch-based interaction.

There is of course no guarantee that Apple is pursuing the full range of Jetson-like scenarios proposed in the patents and patent applications that it acquired or licensed from Pryor. But the scope and number of these intellectual assets suggest that home and vehicle systems automation represent areas of serious interest for the company.

Certainly, there's some logic to this. Since dropping "Computer" from its name in 2007, Apple has achieved unprecedented success through its easy-to-use touch-oriented iOS, which powers its iPods, iPads, iPhones, and the latest Apple TV. It makes sense for the company to look for other products, particularly consumer-oriented ones, that might benefit from an iOS touch interface. Tactile interaction, because its so easily understood, might just provide a way to turn the geeky backwater of home and vehicle systems automation into a mass market opportunity.

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