Apple enjoys a good deal of praise for its iPad and the impact it has had on tablet computing, but veteran Silicon Valley insiders know that the first real look we had at an iPad-style commercial tablet was envisioned by Microsoft almost a decade before the iOS device.
Nevertheless, Apple's ability to reinvent, sand off the rough edges, and mainstream cutting-edge technology seems to consistently trump "who did it first" considerations. So when Apple was granted a patent on Tuesday for a head-mounted display device, it immediately signaled to fans of Google Glass that the battle for wearable computing device supremacy has only just begun.
While the recent sky diving stunt at the Google I/O conference showed us that Google Glass is indeed an exciting peek at the future of wearable computers, Apple's patent for such a device was actually filed way back in 2006. Apple called its device "Peripheral treatment for head-mounted displays." However, the actual language of the patent is quite broad, encompassing a myriad of head-mounted computing possibilities in the future.
Apple describes its tech as "Methods and apparatus, including computer program products, implementing and using techniques for projecting a source image in a head-mounted display apparatus for a user. A first display projects an image viewable by a first eye of the user...an enhanced viewing experience is created for the user." The patent description goes on like that for many paragraphs describing a wide range of computing applications for the head-mounted device.
Of course, Apple holds the rights to a number of seemingly outlandish patents (like cloning your online identity). But as wearable computers continue to gain traction as the next phase of mainstream computing, it's more likely than not that Apple will find a use for its prescient patent filing.
But, given the recent contentious patent fights between the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, and Nokia, we should probably prepare ourselves for a fair amount of legal wrangling around patents when these wearable computers do become mainstream. Until then, the notion that—as slick and minimalist as Google Glass looks today—Apple might already be secretly applying its Jonathan Ive-powered design inspiration and its "it just works" brand of software elegance to such a device is a fascinating prospect.