It is a common practice for tech companies to register patents that might not even make it into production. Nevertheless, there have been documents in the past that were published and leaked upcoming products and features before their official announcements. Apple just recently revealed several new hardware: The iPad Air 4, iPad 8, Apple Watch Series 6, and Apple Watch SE. As consumers now anticipate an upcoming iPhone 12 announcement soon, a new patent from the company might be a preview of what future protective cases might bring to the table.
Normally, the Cupertino-based manufacturer does not ship smartphones and other portable devices with a bumper or screen protector. Instead, users purchase these as aftermarket options from third-party brands. That might soon change as the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published details of around 67 newly granted patents for Apple Inc. Perhaps the most interesting among the list is the one for the use of "active magnetorheological polymers" that can theoretically mitigate impacts.
In general, despite the premium construction of iPhones, these are unfortunately susceptible to damage from accidental drops. Thus, owners usually rely on bumpers or protective cases to keep their pricey investments away from harm. Meanwhile, a report from Patently Apple shows an innovative accessory that will use materials that can change their properties when subjected to magnetic force. This allows it to adjust the damping coefficient to absorb the shock upon impact.
According to Apple's papers, "unlike the passive material, the active electro-mechanical material has an adjustable damping coefficient. In some examples, the active electro-mechanical material includes magnetorheological elastomers (MRE) or electro-active polymers (EAP)." The document is apparently comparing the technology with materials such as leather, plastic, rubber, and others, which are normally used by manufacturers.
Aside from impact protection, the active electro-mechanical system can potentially be used for ingress protection. Additional information indicated on the documents notes that the case will house a processor, a magnetic circuit, and special material. From an aesthetic standpoint, these will be covered by a cosmetic layer. There was no mention of a built-in battery, which somehow hints that it might be powered by the device it is protecting.