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Apple applies for patent on 'active stylus' technology

The technology allows for more accurate stylus functionality while reducing the costs associated with lesser-quality stylus functions.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
2 min read
Would an iPad benefit from a stylus?
Would an iPad benefit from a stylus? Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple has filed for a patent that the company says, improves the overall functionality of a stylus.

Dubbed "Active Stylus," the technology describes a way in which a stylus, outfitted with an electrode at the tip, can interact with a "capacitive touch sensor panel" and allow users to tap around on menus, buttons, and text fields. The technology doesn't necessarily reinvent the stylus -- it is still handheld and functions just as today's styli do -- but it attempts to improve accuracy while maintaining costs.

Here's what Apple's patent says about the stylus:

Unlike conventional styluses which work passively by blocking electric field lines between the drive and sense electrodes of a capacitive touch sensor panel, the styluses disclosed in the various embodiments of this disclosure can either act as a drive electrode to create an electric field between the drive electrode and the sense lines of a mutual capacitive touch sensor panel, or as a sense electrode for sensing capacitively coupled signals from one or more stimulated drive rows and columns of the touch sensor panel or both. Accordingly, the styluses disclosed herein can be referred to as active styluses in comparison to conventional passive styluses. These active styluses can significantly improve stylus sensing on a mutual capacitive touch sensor panel without incurring significant additional cost.

Interestingly, the patent application does not mention Apple. However, Patently Apple, which was first to discover the application, found that the two men filing for it -- Jonah Harley and David Simon -- are both engineering managers at the company. According to Patently Apple, the company often times allows its engineers to be listed as the sole inventors until just before a patent is granted. At that time, Apple adds its name. The move is designed to throw outsiders off to any inventions the company might be working on.

Apple has been actively working on stylus technology for years. Earlier this year, the company filed for a patent for a stylus that would provide haptic feedback. That came several months after it applied for two other patents on stylus input on capacitive touch screens. Samsung, Apple's chief rival in the mobile space, sells Galaxy Note devices that work with styli. It's not clear whether Apple might try to respond with a stylus-equipped iPad.

That Apple is at least considering launching products with a stylus is surprising. The company's late co-founder Steve Jobs often scoffed at the stylus during his tenure as chief executive. On several occasions, Jobs said that he believed a stylus bundled with a product meant it was a failed device.

"If you see a stylus, they blew it," Jobs said at an Apple event in 2010.