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Apple patent frenzy: TV set-top box, Cinema Display, iChat, liquid metal

According to Patently Apple, this week Apple's been granted a storm of patents. The patents include:

1. An advanced set-top box that sounds like the superhero offspring of the current Apple TV and a TiVo set. What's new and exciting in this patent is a multiple search engine implementation that would allow programming data to come from multiple providers. The patent also describes a system of searching for "advanced metadata" for shows, which, if found, could include the types of special features that DVD aficionados have grown used to over the past decade. Being able to download, for instance, a director's commentary track for the movie you're watching on HBO would be pretty sweet.

2. A design patent for the Cinema Display. Other than the overall design of the display, there doesn't appear to be much else to this patent; this seems mostly aimed at ensuring that other companies don't copy Apple's design shamelessly.

3. An iChat patent related to audio processing in multi-participant video conferences. This covers the stereo effects seen in multi-participant video chat sessions, ensuring that audio signals are mixed according to the position of the participant's onscreen image.

4. Another iChat patent, this time covering the multi-participant video chat user interface itself. This patent appears to be very specific to iChat's UI rather than a generalized patent, so Skype likely has little to fear from this patent.

5. The final patent is the one I find most interesting, and the one which could have the most far-reaching implications. Apple and Liquidmetal Technologies entered into a Master Transaction Agreement in August of last year, and this patent relates to building a collector plate from a "solidifying amorphous alloy" -- i.e., liquid metal. Patently Apple notes this invention is related to fuel cells, which could mean Apple is looking at developing its own in-house method of deploying next-gen, miniaturized fuel cell technology in its portable products. Even if Apple is developing this technology, it'll likely be years before it deploys in shipping products... but once it does, MacBooks, iPhones, iPods and iPads will run for pretty much forever compared to the running time they get on current lithium ion batteries.

The usual caveats apply: any patents granted for products Apple hasn't shipped yet may never actually find their way to the market (or your living room). In this case, though, let's all hope they do.

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