I disagree with Tim Bajarin. I believe that Apple is working on 3D displays (or 3D representations on a 2D surface), and that this patent is not about 3D printing.
Back in 1988 (27 years ago) Apple released a concept video called ‘Future Shock‘. In that video, we see things that didn’t commercially exist at that time, but do exist now (flat screen computers, display mounted digital cameras, voice control, digital assistants, computer connected devices like digital scales and microwave ovens, and even something that looks like the Apple Watch.)
In the video we also see the users maneuvering in a 3D space with hand gestures and controlling virtual 3D objects using the same hand as the Apple wristband.
Since 1988 Apple has explored various 3D interface objects (like the original Apple TV interface, 3D icons, 3D Chess, Scene Kit framework and even the 3D parallax wallpapers in iOS 8). Apple has even acquired companies like PrimeSense (the company that developed the depth sensing technology used in the Microsoft Kinect) and Poly9 and C3 (3D mapping technologies). And, of course, Apple has created worldwide patents that include use of 3D navigation and natural human interaction with computers through advanced sensors. It is obvious that Apple is interested in and is investing in 3D technologies.
For those that are curious, the PrimeSense technology uses an Infrared (IR) light source along with a camera to detect distance and position of the user. If Apple does include a laser in future iOS devices, it will be an IR laser and will be mounted near the camera module. This way the iOS device will be able to correlate the images from the camera with distance (depth) information. Combine that information with the motion sensors, GPS and date/time information, and you can use these information packed images to capture 3D analogues of the real world.
Passive InfraRed sensors are used in devices like motion sensors. Active InfraRed are used for night-vision devices and other scientific, industrial and medical applications. However InfraRed lasers can be dangerous to human vision (even though we cannot see IR, it can still damage our eyes). It will be interesting to see how Apple solves the safety issue.
I can envision how these technologies could be combined to enhance iOS applications.
- The Camera could store depth information for single frame images. The images could then be viewed in parallax (like iOS 8 wallpapers).
- The Video Camera could use the 3D and motion sensors to include volume, and planar or curved surface mapping.
- The Maps application could allow users to contribute 3D images that could be used to enhance the Maps with 3D street level views.
- Scanned 3D objects could be imported into and manipulated in applications like Keynote, Numbers, Pages, iMovie, Final Cut Pro, QuickTime, etc.
- I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 3D information incorporated into technologies like: Scene Kit, HomeKit, HealthKit, iBeacon, iBooks, Maps, Game Center, CarPlay and Accessibility.
- The sensing and gesture recognition would be incorporated into OSX, iOS and Apple TV.
- Third party software developers could incorporate these 3D objects into their 3D applications (CAD/CAM, Architecture, Real Estate, 3D Modeling and imaging, etc.)
In short, I can envision these technologies being used to enhance existing applications across all Apple platforms… 3D image acquisition, manipulation and display. While I have no doubt that someone will find a way to print these 3D images on existing 3D printers, it is my belief that the existing printers are far too limited (and expensive) for general use.
When Apple moves into the 3D printing world, it will be when the technology has matured enough to create general purpose printers, the legal issue have been worked out (who owns a 3D replica of an art object?), how do inventors, companies and artists get paid for derivative works, etc.
In the meantime, I believe Apple will be happy to be the leader in 3D image acquisition, manipulation and display (using Apple devices). Apple may even open up the App store to include 3D objects (once the legal issues are resolved), but I believe that Apple will leave the 3D printing to others until the market matures.