Apple's 3D controller patent. | Source: USPTO
Apple's U.S. Patent No. 8,291,346 for a "3D remote control system employing absolute and relative position detection" describes a system in which a user can interact with software by using a motion and light-sensing remote control.
Much like Nintendo's Wii, the system uses infrared light sources and photodetectors, as well as an accelerometer, to calculate the absolute or relative position of the remote in respect to the display. This allows a user to point at an on-screen object or asset and manipulate it in three-dimensions.
In order for the system to function, the remote control requires an embedded motion sensor like an accelerometer, a photodetector that detects infrared light from at least one predetermined source, and a controller configured to determine the remote's positioning. Movement is determined by taking an initial absolute position reading and calculating the average positions of the remote control based on the unit's output, which include light sensor and motion sensor data.
Axes of operation in relation to IR light input.
Like most interactive remote control systems, the "IR blasters" are positioned along the same plane as the screen, allowing for accurate on-axis readings. Two dimensional movements are determined on the basis movements along the x- and y-axes, while the z-axis is used to represent positioning in the third dimension.
Going further, zooming in and out of an on-screen image can be accomplished by taking measurements of the remote as it moves along the third axis, or the z-axis. For example, if a user moves the remote closer to the screen, an image's size would increase, while moving away from the display would cause the image to shrink in size.
Zoom functionality of 3D remote.
The idea has been widely used, perhaps most noticeably to consumers in the gaming industry, though Apple's invention notes that an iPod can be implemented as the "user input component." Because the patent was filed for in 2006, before the original iPhone was announced, Apple's handset is not mentioned in the invention, however it can be assumed that the smartphone can also be adapted to become a 3D remote.
AppleInsider first reported on the patent's application in 2008, suggesting that the technology could be used in an implementation of the Apple TV. No such iteration of either the iPod, iPhone or Apple TV remote has been released, though the company may still one day choose to deploy the technology in an as-yet-unreleased product.