ap8In my opinion it’s only a matter of time before tech goliath Apple enters the 3D printing and scanning space. Once this takes place there really is no telling how quickly the entire industry will expand under their wing. A patent, issued this week, and filed at the beginning of 2014, may hint at some of Apple’s ambitions within this space.

Most of you are probably familiar with what a stylus is. If you haven’t used one before, you likely are aware of their rather cumbersome characteristics. Most styli are used for drawing on an electronic screen, or pad, and oftentimes their ease-of-use isn’t anything like the tools (a pen or pencil) that they are trying to mimic. Styli are also sometimes used by graphic artists to maneuver 3D models on a screen, and do in fact provide users with some added utility.

The patent, “Texture Capture Stylus and Method,” credited to a team of inventors from Apple named Jason Lor, Patrick Carroll, Glen Rhodes and Dustin Verhoeve, outlines a new type of stylus which can be used for capturing 3D data of objects in order to possibly create 3D printable models.

Image: Patently Apple

The proposed stylus would allow artists and designers to not only capture the surface texture of an object in order to save that texture and use it for their design project, but using an array of technologies packed into the tiny device, Apple sees the stylus as a possible 3D scanner of sorts. The technology behind this invention, as seen in the diagram above, would include a sophisticated inertial measurement unit to track the movement of the stylus around a target object, allowing it to be used to capture three-dimensional image data. The tip of the stylus would be light transmissive, allowing it to act as a lens for a camera or other image capture device as it is dragged over an object or a few millimeters from that object. The data captured could then be transmitted to the device and eventually to a tablet, laptop or PC.

The patent goes on to describe the possible uses of this device as a 3D scanner in the passage below:ap2

“May be used to create three dimensional images. In this embodiment the texture surface may be a three dimensional representation of a sculpture or other physically represented surface such as a tool design. In this embodiment, the stylus may be used as part of a three dimensional computer aided design (CAD) system. For example, the stylus may be used to design a complex surface required for a specific tooling application.”

The ability to act as a device to capture 3D data for modeling and eventually 3D printing is only one of the possible use cases that Apple has presented in this patent filing. Additionally, it can be used to capture textures of objects which could later be used to electronically paint 3D models on a computer screen. The device could also work in a sort of reverse fashion, allowing 3D models to be “felt” as if they were physical objects. Possible haptic feedback emitted from the device would allow someone who is visually impaired to run the stylus over a screen of a tablet or PC, at which point vibrations would simulate the feel of the particular object on the screen.

“The combination of two senses, visual and touch, makes this embodiment useful in other applications such as medicine where a medical professional may use the application to ‘feel’ the image of an x-ray or a magnetic resonance image,” states the patent.

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Certainly this does not mean Apple is about to jump into the 3D image capturing space any time soon, but does point to their continued interest in the space as the industry continues to experience a mountain of change and innovation.

Let us know your thoughts on this patent and what it could mean for the 3D printing and scanning spaces. Discuss in the Apple Patent forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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