Title:
Inflatable cases and methods
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
The invention provides systems and methods for inflating a device, such that the device forms a protective case securely enclosing a product, thus insulating and cushioning against the potential of impairment, damage and breakage. In one exemplary embodiment, the inflatable device is an inflatable bladder formable into a protective case that encloses the consumer device and provides an exceptional amount of protection in a lightweight device.



Inventors:
Schuster, Michael Louis (Broomfield, CO, US)
Schuster, James Ray (Arvada, CO, US)
Izzo, Theodore-james (Evergreen, CO, US)
Application Number:
10/835554
Publication Date:
01/19/2006
Filing Date:
04/28/2004
Assignee:
Bwana Gear, LLC (Golden, CO, US)
Primary Class:
International Classes:
A41D13/015; A41D1/00; A41D27/20; A45C7/00; A45C13/02; A45C5/03; A45C11/00; A45F3/04; B65D
View Patent Images:
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20050193472Chemical and biological protective hood assemblySeptember, 2005Courtney et al.
20090031475CAP HAVING ILLUMINATING AND PIVOTABLY MOVABLE FANFebruary, 2009Ochoa et al.
20090088306Dead lifting method and suitApril, 2009Alaniz et al.
20040244086Detachable adaptor for glassesDecember, 2004Kim
20070028370Driver and safety personnel protection apparatus, system and methodFebruary, 2007Seng



Primary Examiner:
POLLICOFF, STEVEN B
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP - West Coast (Atlanta, GA, US)
Claims:
What is claimed is:

1. An inflatable device for protecting a consumer device, comprising: an inflatable bladder, wherein the bladder is formable into a case that at least partially encloses the consumer device; a pump assembly comprising a compressible pump and a one-way air intake valve, the pump assembly operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder through the one-way valve, wherein the pump assembly operates to inflate the bladder through the one-way valve, thereby permitting a one-way flow of air from the pump assembly into the bladder; and an air release valve, operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder, wherein the air release valve operates to deflate the bladder.

2. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the compressible pump further comprises: a pump cavity coupled to the inflatable bladder through the one-way air intake valve; and a compressible material located within the pump cavity, the compressible material operating to provide air displacement from the pump cavity into the bladder.

3. An inflatable device as in claim 2, wherein the pump cavity comprises a flap that is an integral part of the inflatable bladder.

4. An inflatable device as in claim 3, wherein the flap further comprises a hook and loop fastener material, such that the flap may be folded and removably secured to the inflatable bladder using the hook and loop fastener material.

5. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the compressible pump further comprises: a pump cavity coupled to the inflatable bladder through the one-way air intake valve; a compressible material located within the pump cavity; and a hole coupled to the pump cavity, the hole operable for both introducing air into the pump cavity and containing the air within the cavity for displacement into the bladder using the compressible material.

6. An inflatable device as in claim 1, further comprising an exoskeleton, and wherein the inflatable bladder is inserted into the exoskeleton.

7. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the inflatable bladder further comprises a perimeter and an extension formed at the perimeter, thereby providing points for attaching the inflatable device to an object.

8. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the inflatable bladder is constructed from a group of materials consisting of urethane, polyvinylchloride (PVC) or Mylar.

9. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the inflatable bladder is folded in half and exterior welded on two sides thereby defining an opening for inserting the consumer product.

10. An inflatable device as in claim 9, wherein the exterior welding further comprises RF welding.

11. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the inflatable bladder is comprised of a sealable and weldable material.

12. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the inflatable bladder further comprises a plurality of air cells having a single continuous air path, the plurality of air cells positioned longitudinally in the inflatable bladder thereby forming a plurality of longitudinal columns of air when inflated.

13. An inflatable device as in claim 12, wherein the plurality of air cells are formed by fusing sections of the inflatable bladder, thereby creating the air cells by providing a plurality of ribs that separate adjacent air cells and provide structural support.

14. An inflatable device as in claim 13, wherein the plurality of ribs further comprise thin longitudinal strips of fused inflatable bladder measuring less than about ⅛ inch in thickness, and wherein the case defines a window.

15. An inflatable device as in claim 12, further comprising a plurality of one-way air cell valves connecting the plurality of air cells, the air cell valves operable for isolating the air cells in case of puncture.

16. An inflatable device as in claim 1, further comprising a hooking point for allowing the case to be removably attached to other items.

17. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the case is adapted to receive goods selected from a group consisting of personal electronics, sporting goods and eyewear.

18. An inflatable device as in claim 1, wherein the case is integrated with carriers selected from a group consisting of luggage, briefcases and backpacks.

19. An inflatable storage case for protecting consumer products from damage comprising: an inflatable bladder, wherein the bladder defines at least a portion of the inflatable case; an outer layer of material that is adapted to receive to the inflatable bladder, wherein the outer layer of material forms an exoskeleton to create a shape of the inflatable case; a pump assembly comprising a compressible pump and a one-way air intake valve, the pump assembly operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder through the one-way valve, wherein the pump assembly operates to inflate the bladder through the one-way valve, thereby permitting a one-way flow of air from the pump assembly into the bladder; and an air release valve, operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder, wherein the release valve operates to deflate the bladder.

20. An inflatable case as in claim 19, wherein the outer layer of material defines an opening for inserting the consumer product.

21. An inflatable case as in claim 19, wherein the inflatable bladder is constructed from a material selected from a group consisting of urethane, polyvinylchloride (PVC) or mylar.

22. An inflatable case as in claim 19, wherein the inflatable bladder further comprises a plurality of air cells having a single continuous air path, the plurality of air cells positioned longitudinally in the inflatable bladder thereby forming a plurality of longitudinal columns of air when inflated.

23. An inflatable case as in claim 22, wherein the plurality of air cells are formed by fusing sections of the inflatable bladder, thereby creating the air cells by providing a plurality of ribs that separate adjacent air cells.

24. An inflatable case as in claim 19, wherein the compressible pump further comprises: a pump cavity coupled to the inflatable bladder through the one-way air intake valve; and a compressible material located within the pump cavity, the material operating to provide air displacement from the pump cavity into the bladder.

25. An inflatable case as in claim 24, wherein the pump cavity is located on a flap that is an integral part of the inflatable bladder.

26. An inflatable case as in claim 19, wherein the compressible pump further comprises: a pump chamber coupled to the inflatable bladder through the one-way air intake valve; a compressible material located within the pump chamber; and a hole coupled to the pump chamber, the hole operable for both introducing air into the pump chamber and containing the air within the chamber for displacement into the bladder using the compressible material.

27. An inflatable protective case for insulating consumer products from damage comprising: an inflatable bladder, wherein the bladder defines at least a portion of the protective case; a compressible pump assembly comprising a pump chamber coupled to the inflatable bladder, a compressible material located within the pump chamber, and a hole coupled to the pump chamber, the hole operable for both introducing air into the pump chamber and containing the air within the pump chamber for displacement into the bladder using the compressible material; a one-way air intake valve operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder and the compressible pump assembly, wherein the one-way air intake valve permits a one-way flow of air from the pump cavity into the bladder; and an air release valve, operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder, wherein the release valve operates to deflate the bladder.

28. An inflatable protective case as in claim 27, further comprising an outer layer of material that is adapted to receive at least a portion of the inflatable bladder, wherein the outer layer of material forms an exoskeleton to create a shape of the inflatable case.

29. A inflatable protective case as in claim 27, wherein the protective case is adapted to receive goods selected from a group consisting of eyewear, sporting goods and consumer electronics.

30. An inflatable protective case as in claim 27, wherein the inflatable bladder is comprised of urethane, polyvinylchloride (PVC) or mylar.

31. An inflatable case as in claim 27, wherein the inflatable bladder further comprises a plurality of air cells having a single continuous air path, the plurality of air cells positioned longitudinally in the inflatable bladder thereby forming a plurality of longitudinal columns of air when inflated.

32. An inflatable case as in claim 31, wherein the plurality of air cells are formed by fusing sections of the inflatable bladder, thereby creating the air cells by providing a plurality of ribs that separate adjacent air cells.

33. An inflatable case as in claim 27, wherein the pump chamber comprises a flap that is an integral part of the inflatable bladder.

34. An inflatable case as in claim 27, wherein the protective case is integrated with carriers selected from a group consisting of luggage, briefcases, and backpacks.

35. An inflatable protective case for insulating a personal electronic device from damage comprising: an inflatable bladder, wherein the bladder defines at least a portion of the protective case; a compressible pump assembly comprising a pump chamber coupled to the inflatable bladder, a compressible material located within the pump chamber, and a hole coupled to the pump chamber, the hole operable for both introducing air into the pump chamber and containing the air within the pump chamber for displacement into the bladder using the compressible material; an air intake valve operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder and the compressible pump assembly, wherein the air intake valve permits air flow from the pump cavity into the bladder; a transparent cover coupled to the inflatable bladder, wherein the transparent cover allows a personal electronic device display to be visible; and an air release valve, operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder, wherein the release valve operates to deflate the bladder.

36. The inflatable protective case as in claim 35, wherein the inflatable bladder further comprises a pull-down flap portion, wherein the flap portion covers the transparent cover such that the flap portion protects the personal electronic device when engaged and exposes the electronics through the transparent cover when disengaged.

37. A method for providing an inflatable protective case for insulating a consumer product, the method comprising: providing an inflatable protective case, wherein the case comprises an inflatable bladder, wherein the bladder defines at least a portion of the inflatable case, a pump assembly operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder comprising a compressible pump and an air intake valve, and a release valve operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder; and operating the pump assembly to cause air from the pump assembly to pass through the intake valve and to inflate the bladder.

38. The method of claim 37, further comprising providing an outer layer of material, and inserting the bladder into the outer layer of material.

39. The method of claim 37, wherein the pump assembly further includes a hole, and closing the hole with a finger while operating the pump assembly, and further comprising activating the release valve to deflate the bladder.

40. The method of claim 37, further comprising inserting an article into the protective case prior to operating the pump assembly.

41. The method of claim 37, further comprising coupling the inflatable protective case to an object.

42. An inflatable protective case for insulating a flip-style personal electronic device from damage comprising: an inflatable bladder comprising a first portion and a second portion; a compressible pump assembly comprising a pump chamber coupled to the inflatable bladder, a compressible material located within the pump chamber, and a hole coupled to the pump chamber for introducing air into the pump chamber for displacement into the bladder; an air intake valve operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder and the compressible pump assembly, wherein the air intake valve permits a one-way flow of air from the pump cavity into the bladder; wherein at least one of the first or the second portion defines a window to allow at least a portion of the display device to be visible from outside the case; and a release valve operatively coupled to the inflatable bladder, wherein the release valve operates to deflate the bladder.

43. An inflatable protective case as in claim 42, further comprising a first transparent cover coupled to the first portion and a second transparent cover portion coupled to the second portion, wherein the first transparent cover and the second transparent cover allow a device display to be visible.

44. An inflatable protective case as in claim 42, wherein the first transparent cover and the second transparent cover comprise a contiguous transparent cover.

45. An inflatable protective case as in claim 42, wherein the first portion of the bladder and the first transparent cover form a protective case around the base electronics of the flip-style personal electronic device and wherein the second portion of the bladder and the second transparent cover form a protective case around the flip-up electronics of the flip-style personal electronic device.

46. An inflatable case for protecting a consumer device from damage comprising: a first inflatable bladder; a first pump assembly comprising a first compressible pump and a first air intake valve, the first pump assembly operatively coupled to the first inflatable bladder through the first valve, wherein the first pump assembly operates to inflate the first bladder through the first valve; a first air release valve operatively coupled to the first inflatable bladder, wherein the air release valve operates to deflate the first bladder; a second inflatable bladder; a second pump assembly comprising a second compressible pump and a second air intake valve, the second pump assembly operatively coupled to the second inflatable bladder through the second valve, wherein the second pump assembly operates to inflate the second bladder through the second valve; a second air release valve operatively coupled to the second inflatable bladder, wherein the air release valve operates to deflate the second bladder.

47. An inflatable case as in claim 46, wherein the first inflatable bladder is exterior welded to the second inflatable bladder on at least two sides thereby forming the case with an opening for inserting the consumer product.

Description:

CROSS REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

This invention is a continuation in part application and claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 60/467,009, filed Apr. 30, 2004, the complete disclosure of which is herein incorporated by reference.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

This invention relates generally to the field of inflatable storage devices, and in particular to inflatable storage devices, such as cases, that may be used to store and protect a wide variety of items.

Small and lightweight consumer products are a large part of our daily life. Unfortunately, so are replacement costs associated with damage and breakage. Products are constantly being dropped, bumped, sat on, thrown, stepped on and fallen on resulting in substantial economic loss to the buyer. Such loss is ideal for the manufacturers that make money off repeat sales, but harmful for the consumers who spend their hard-earned dollars to replace broken items. Consumers desire a protective case that is effective, lightweight and aesthetically pleasing for protecting their valuables from harm.

In addition, OEM's seek a protective device that is easily incorporated into their own products, without losing any aesthetic appeal. Ideally, the protective device provides a layer of insulation against the typical environmental factors that can ruin a product, while remaining an inconspicuous and integrated component of the product's design.

Existing protective cases are often manufactured using a plastic material or an equivalent. The use of plastics produces a hard-shelled product that provides an adequate measure of protection at the price of both aesthetics and limited use. Since the case is typically larger that the product to be protected, products are often inadequately confined within such a case, allowing for movement that may cause damage.

BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

Hence, this invention is related to functional and aesthetically pleasing inflatable and deflatable protective cases. In some embodiments, the cases conform to the shape of consumer products and insulate them against impairment, damage and breakage. The protective cases may be sold separately as stand-alone products for protecting sunglasses, cellular phones, PDA's, cameras, binoculars or the like. Alternatively, the cases may also be removably secured or integral with other items such as suitcases, briefcases, jackets, backpacks or the like.

In specific embodiments, the invention provides both methods and apparatus for protecting consumer products and other items against impairment, damage and breakage. The applications for inflatable cases are many ranging from the marine industry to the perfume industry to the electronics industries. Air-inflated cases can be used alone with any small device that needs protecting from damage. The protective bladders can also be incorporated into existing products such as suitcases, jackets, backpacks and the like to provide a protective pouch.

In one particular embodiment, the inflatable device comprises an inflatable bladder that is formable into a protective case that at least partially encloses the consumer device and provides an exceptional amount of protection. The inflatable device is manufactured so that it may be formed into an individual case (such as by folding the bladder over itself and securing the sides together to form an enclosure) or integrated with other items, such as a suitcase, briefcase or the like. The inflatable device may also be incorporated (such as by sewing, gluing or the like) into clothing such as a jacket, pant, backpack or the like. To fill the device with air, the inflatable bladder is coupled to a pump assembly having a compressible pump and a one-way air intake valve. The pump assembly infuses air into the inflatable bladder through a one-way or other valve. In operation, the pump assembly allows for a one-way flow of air, i.e. from the pump assembly into the bladder. To release the air from the bladder, an air release valve is coupled to the inflatable bladder. The air release valve deflates the bladder when not in use.

In an alternative embodiment, the inflatable storage case has an inflatable bladder that may be manipulated into the shape of an inflatable case. For convenience, the bladder may be placed into an outer layer of material that forms an exoskeleton. When the bladder is inflated, the outer layer creates the shape of the inflatable case. In this way, a generic bladder of various sizes/shapes may be produced (such as for an OEM) and then inserted into an exoskeleton which provides the appropriate appearance and/or shape. For example, a case for eyewear may be formed by providing an exoskeleton in the form of a bag and inserting the bladder into the bag.

In one particular embodiment, the bladder may be constructed of a weldable material. In this way, the bladder may be folded on top of itself and then exterior welded on at least two sides, thus forming an enclosed case body with an opening for inserting a consumer product. Also, in some aspects, the bladder may include one or more windows or openings to provide access into the case and/or to provide visual access to portions of the item being held, such as a cell phone or PDA.

In yet another embodiment, the pump assembly may additionally have a pump chamber that is coupled to the inflatable bladder through a one-way air intake valve. The pump chamber has a resilient material, such as a compressible low-density polyethylene or sponge material, located within the pump chamber. The pump chamber also has at least one hole that both introduces air into the pump chamber and contains the air within the chamber for displacement into the bladder. When the compressible material is squeezed while simultaneously covering the hole with a finger, the trapped air is forced from the pump chamber into the bladder. When a finger is removed from the hole and the compressible material is released, air is allowed to return to the pump chamber. In this manner with repeated operation, the pump assembly gradually fills the bladder with air.

In still another aspect, the inflatable bladder may haves a number of air cells. The air cells may be connected together by a single continuous air path. The air cells may be positioned longitudinally in the inflatable bladder thereby forming a plurality of longitudinal columns of air when inflated. The air cells in one aspect may be formed by fusing sections of the inflatable bladder. The fusing of the bladder creates a number of airless sections or ribs that separate adjacent air cells. This ribs also provide structural stability, thereby providing an additional measure of protection for the item.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

FIG. 1 illustrates a front view of one embodiment of an inflatable case according to the invention.

FIG. 2 illustrates another embodiment of an inflatable protective device, in a deflated state according to the invention.

FIG. 2A illustrates the inflatable protective case of FIG. 2 filled with air and having an open flap.

FIG. 2B illustrates the inflatable protective case of FIG. 2A with the flap closed and showing a clip attachment.

FIG. 3A illustrates an inflatable protective device that is constructed using the case of FIG. 1 placed into an exoskeleton.

FIG. 3B illustrates the integrated inflatable protective case and exoskeleton.

FIG. 4 illustrates an inflatable protective device incorporated into a piece of luggage.

FIG. 5A illustrates the inflatable case of FIG. 1 and an outer layer of material or exoskeleton.

FIG. 5B illustrates the inflatable protective case of FIG. 5A when enclosed in the outer layer of material.

FIG. 5C illustrates the case of FIG. 5B incorporated into a brief case.

FIG. 6A illustrates an inflatable protective case removably attached to a piece of luggage.

FIG. 6B illustrates an inflatable protective case removably attached to a briefcase.

FIG. 7 illustrates an inflatable protective device with additional material around the perimeter for attaching or sewing the inflatable device to an object.

FIG. 8 illustrates an inflatable protective case with a clip attachment.

FIG. 9 illustrates another embodiment of a case that is particularly useful with personal computing devices.

FIG. 10A illustrates an embodiment of a protective case particularly suited for holding a mobile phone.

FIGS. 10B and 10C illustrate an embodiment of a protective case that may be used for flip-types of electronic devices.

FIG. 11A illustrates a jacket having an incorporated protective case.

FIG. 11B illustrates a pant leg having an incorporated protective case.

FIG. 12 illustrates a pack having an incorporated protective device.

FIGS. 13A and B illustrate another embodiment of an inflatable protective case according to the invention.

FIG. 14 illustrates another embodiment of an inflatable case according to the invention.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION

In one aspect, the invention provides systems and methods for inflating a device such that the device forms a protective case securely around at least a portion of a product, thus insulating and cushioning against the damage caused by everyday wear-and-tear. The invention is best applied to create a protective case for consumer products that are relatively small and lightweight. In use, the resulting protective case may be used for shipping, storing, carrying or using a product. Cases may be manufactured in a variety of colors, shapes, sizes and textures and can be silk screened or other wise marked for private labeling.

One particular advantage of the invention is the capability of inflating the device with a simple compression pump assembly having a one-way valve. The pump assembly provides quick inflation of the device with little physical exertion at a minimal cost. Additionally, air does not escape during inflation.

Another advantage of the invention is an air release valve that deflates the device when not in use. The release valve is important for storing and carrying the device in a compact space. It is possible to combine the function of the one-way intake valve and the air release valve into a single valve without departing from the intended scope of the invention.

By providing an inflatable case, the case is soft and pliable, yet sturdy enough to protect its contents. For example, the case may be worn by a skier to protect the skier's eyewear. If the skier falls, the case is soft enough so that the case will not harm the skier. At the same time, the case is strong enough to protect the eyewear.

The cases are also extremely lightweight, thereby making them attractive for a variety of applications, such as backpacking and hiking. Also, when not in use (or at a point of sale display or during shipping) the cases take up minimal space.

Inflatable Protective Case

Referring now to the drawings, the systems and methods of the invention will be described in detail. Referring first to FIG. 1, an example of an inflatable bladder that is formable into a protective case in accordance with one embodiment of the present invention will be described. The protective case of the invention is constructed of an inflatable case body or bladder. In one particular embodiment, the bladder may use a valve system, such as the one described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,144,708, the complete disclosure of which is herein incorporated by reference. However, the invention is not intended to limited to only such a design.

FIG. 1 illustrates one embodiment of an inflatable protective case 10. Case 10 comprises an inflatable bladder 40 that is formable into the shape of a case. Such as case may be capable of at least partially enclosing a consumer device. Inflatable bladder 40 may be constructed of essentially any type of material capable of holding a fluid, such as urethane, polyvinylchloride (PVC), mylar or any other suitable material that is sealable, weldable and inflatable. Also, these materials may be backed with other materials, such as nylon, fabrics, LYCRA, Kevlar, mesh materials, and the like. Inflatable bladder 40 has a plurality of air cells 30 that are inflated with air directed from a pump assembly 15. A plurality of airless sections or ribs 50 separate adjacent air cells 30. Ribs 50 are formed by fusing the material of inflatable bladder 40. Other ways to form ribs 50 include gluing, heating, and the like. The size, shape, number and orientation of the air cells and ribs may be varied depending on the item being protected. As shown, the air cells and ribs extend longitudinally along the case. These ribs provide additional structural support to the case. As one example, the air cells may have a width that is in the range from about 0.75 inch to about 1.5 inch, and in some cases from about 0.9 inch to about 1.1 inch. Also, in some cases, the ribs may extending both longitudinally and transversely (or angled, curved, etc.) and may be staggered, offset or aligned depending on the structural support needed and the type of item being protected.

Pump assembly 15 is coupled to air cells 30 through one-way valve 20, although other types of values may be used. One-way air valve 20 allows air to enter air cells 30 of inflatable bladder 40 but does not allow air to return to pump assembly 15. One example of one-way air valve 20 is described in detail in U.S. Pat. No. 5,144,708 previously incorporated by reference. Pump assembly 15 is illustrated in FIG. 1 as a compressible pump. The compressible pump has a compressible material (not shown) located within a pump cavity 55 and a hole 5. The compressible material may be made from any resilient and porous material including but not limited to foam, soft rubber, urethane foam, polyethylene, neoprene, sponge materials and the like. Also, in some cases, the compressible material may be the pump cavity itself. For example, the pump cavity may be made of a resilient material, like rubber, that springs back to its original position after being squeezed.

In operation, hole 5 is covered and the compressible material is squeezed. Covering hole 5 traps air within pump chamber 55. Hole 5 may be covered with a finger or palm. Manually compressing the material encapsulated within pump cavity 55 provides air displacement into air cells 30 of bladder 40 through one-way valve 20.

Repeated manual operation of pump assembly 15 gradually infuses air into air cells 30 and shapes the protective case by following the contour of a consumer product in contact with bladder 40, thus creating the support and protection against damaging events. When inflatable bladder 40 is filled with air, compression of the bladder is limited, thus providing a significant protective cushioning between an external compressing force and a product located on the opposite side of the bladder. When pumping air from pump chamber 55, air cells 30 begin to form around the product bladder 40 is designed to protect. At full inflation, air cells 30 hold the product on all high points, not allowing it to move inside the resulting protective case.

The plurality of air cells 30 within inflatable bladder 40 are linked together by a single continuous air path. In this manner, air infused from pump assembly 15 will travel along the path from air cell to air cell until bladder 40 reaches full inflation. Multiple one-way air valves (not shown) may separate various air cells to create separation in case of puncture. Therefore, multiple air cells remain inflated if one or more air cells is punctured.

Air release valve 25 operates to deflate inflatable bladder 40. Release valve 25 is coupled to an air cell thereby providing an air exit path from each air cell that is linked together by the single continuous air path. Squeezing or pushing on bladder 40 while holding air release valve 25 eliminates air from the bladder, returning it to its deflated state and allowing it to be folded or flat packed.

Although shown with a specific size and shape, it will be appreciated that case 10 may be made to any size and shape. Further, the pump chamber 55 may be incorporated as an extension or flap that is connected to the bladder, or incorporated somewhere within the bladder itself (so that a separate flap is not needed). Also, pump chamber 55 could also be hinged to the bladder.

One particular advantage of case 10 that is that may be incorporated into a wide variety of case designs. This permits case 10 to be manufactured as an OEM product and then incorporated into other types of carriers as described hereinafter. Also, case 10 can be formed into a stand alone case by folding the bladder over itself and connecting its edges as described herein. Hence, case 10 may be manufactured in essentially any requested size or shape and then incorporated by an end user into another type of product, or made into a stand alone case.

FIG. 2 shows an inflatable protective case 41 in a deflated state. In the illustrated embodiment, inflatable protective case 41 is constructed using inflatable bladder 40 of FIG. 1 that has been folded over and welded on two sides. Air cells 30 run longitudinally along the case body. Also, pump chamber 55 conveniently forms a case flap 75 that may be used to close the opening into case 41. Although the pump assembly 15 is located within a flap that extends from the case body, it should be understood that pump assembly 15 may be provided at any location suitable for providing air to bladder 40 of inflatable protective case 41. Air relief valve 25 is conveniently located within about 2 inches or less from the top 69 of protective case 41, although it may be located in other positions as well. Inflatable protective case 41 has rounded corners to enhance the appearance of the product.

To create the shape of inflatable protective case 41, a bottom 68 and a side 60 of the protective case 41 are exterior seam welded, thereby creating an opening (shown in FIG. 2A) under flap 75 for inserting a consumer product into the protective interior of case 41. The material may be welded using an RF weld, although any suitable welding or attaching techniques (such as gluing, heat seal, sewing or the like) may be used without departing from the intended scope of the invention.

FIG. 2A shows the inflatable protective case 41 in an inflated state. Air cells 30 fill with air when infused with air from pump assembly 15 but the airless sections or ribs do not. Also shown are VELCRO strips (also known as a hook and loop fastener material) 80 and 85 for securing flap 75 to inflatable protective case 41. Material 80 is secured to flap 75 and material 85 is secured to protective case 41. An object is inserted into the protective case 41 through opening 82, ideally before inflating protective case 41. Once securely inside, flap 75 is closed, removably secured by VELCRO strips 80, 85. Although shown with a hook and loop fastener material, it will be appreciated that a wide variety of connectors may be used including strings, hooks, snaps, buttons and the like.

Also shown in FIG. 2A is a ring clip 56 that is attached to case 41. This permits case 41 to be attached to another object. A wide variety of such attachments may be used such as hooks, strings, straps and the like, as well as those described in copending U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 60/519,523, filed Nov. 12, 2003, the complete disclosure of which is herein incorporated by reference.

FIG. 2B shows inflatable protective case 41 in an inflated state. Flap 75 is firmly secured by VELCRO strips 80, 85 to protective case 41. In this way, flap 75 folds into the uninflated or slightly inflated space located underneath VELCRO strip 85. Such an arrangement creates a low-profile product with the pump assembly 15 (hidden from view) providing damage protection in lieu of air cells. Bottom left 90 and bottom right 95 quadrants are welded in such a manner to create maximum conformity to the inner shape while maximizing protective air cell properties of inflatable protective case 41. In one embodiment, the two welds are located within at least about 2.5 inches of any space. However, other spacings may be used as described herein. Such welds provide ribs that give structural stability to the case, especially in the transverse direction while the air cells provide stability in the longitudinal direction.

FIG. 3A and FIG. 3B illustrate another way to construct an inflatable case 105 using case 10 of FIG. 1. In this embodiment, the inflatable case 105 is formed by inserting the inflatable bladder 40 into an external exoskeleton 100. One advantage of using exoskeleton 100 is that it may be constructed in a variety of shapes and sizes and used with a generic bladder 40. As such, a few shapes and sizes of bladders 40 may be constructed in a relatively inexpensive manner and passed on to an OEM who finishes the case by inserting bladder 40 into the exoskeleton or shell. Exoskeleton 100 may be manufactured out of a wide variety of materials, such as textile, plastic or any other malleable material suitable for containing the inflatable bladder 40 and providing a case shape. As shown in FIGS. 3A and 3B, a case that is similar to the case in FIG. 2 is produced simply by inserting the bladder into a shell. In this way, the bladder does not need to be welded to itself to form the case.

Also, exoskeleton 100 may include a fastener 102, such as a VELCRO strip to connect with fastener 80 on case 10. Although shown with VELCRO, it will be appreciated that essentially any type of fastener may be used. Also, a variety of attachment mechanisms may be secured to exoskeleton 100 to permit case 105 to be attached to another object.

FIG. 4 illustrates yet another use for the inflatable protective device of FIG. 1. Inflatable bladder 40 is integrated with a pocket 300 of suitcase 305. The inflatable bladder 40 may be sewn, glued, welded or any other suitable means for permanently affixing the bladder to the receptive object. Alternatively, bladder 40 could be removably placed into pocket 300. The combination of pocket 300 and inflatable bladder 40 creates an insulated pouch on the suitcase that is adaptable to receive a consumer product and protect it from damage. One advantage of producing inflatable bladders, such as bladder 40 is that they may be incorporated into luggage at the time of manufacture or later retrofit. As previously described, bladder 40 may be constructed to be essentially any size or shape to fit within a wide variety of pocket designs. Also, although pump assembly 15 is shown as a flap that extends outside of the pocket, it will be appreciated that pump assembly 15 could be incorporated into the bladder (so as to be within the pocket) or be removable or extend from the pocket (such as with a hinged connection or a length of tubing). As long as pump assembly 15 may be squeezed to inflate the bladder, it may be incorporated essentially anywhere on the piece of luggage.

FIG. 5A shows the bladder 40 secured to an outer layer of textile material 200 that functions as an exoskeleton in a manner similar to other embodiments. Outer layer of material 200 comprises a high burst pressure material that is highly durable yet aesthetically pleasing. In this way, a case may be formed simply by securing material 200 to itself as shown in FIG. 5B and folding bladder 40 over itself. Material 200 may be sealable and weldable, or other securing techniques may be used, such as gluing, sewing, snapping or the like. Examples of materials that may be used include, but are not limited nylon, Kevlar, PVC, polyester, cotton, LYCRA, plastics, mesh materials, elastomers and the like.

As just mentioned, FIG. 5B illustrates the inflatable case 40 folded in half, with the outer layer of material 200 is welded to form the exoskeleton for the inflatable case 205. In this manner, the combination of inflatable protective bladder 40 and outer layer of material 200 form a case 205 that may be used as a stand alone protective case or attached to other products. Air release valve 25 may extend through an opening in material 200 to permit the case to be deflated when needed.

FIG. 5C shows the inflatable case 205 affixed to a briefcase 210, thereby providing a protective case for a PDA, mobile phone or the like. Case 205 may be removably attached to the briefcase, such as with a clip, or may be integrally formed within the briefcase. For example, case 205 may be incorporated into the briefcase using the techniques described in connection with FIG. 4, and in some cases may be incorporated without using material 200, but may utilize an existing pocket in the briefcase.

FIGS. 6A and 6B illustrate examples of using inflatable protective case 41 in connection with a piece of luggage. As shown, the inflatable protective case 41 is removably joined to the interior of suitcase 400 (although it may be used with briefcase 405 as well). In operation, a product may be inserted into case 41 and withstand the damage that occurs to luggage from baggage handlers or to briefcases from falls from a car seat or a conference room table.

To attach case 41 to the piece of luggage, essentially any type of connector may be used as described herein. In this way, case 41 may be permanently or removably attached to the piece of luggage. In some examples, case 41 may simply be inserted into an existing pocket of the luggage and will not need any attachment means. Also, case 41 could be integrally formed within a pocket of the piece of luggage at the time of manufacture, so that the bladder 40 is an integral part of the luggage. Alternatively, a bladder may be inserted into the pocket after manufacture as a retrofit item.

FIG. 7 illustrates another embodiment of an inflatable case 500 that is similar to the case of FIG. 2 with the addition of material 505 along the perimeter of the inflatable protective case 500. Also, eyelets 510, 515 are provided for attaching or sewing the inflatable device to an object. Material 505 may be comprised of additional bladder material or it may be textile from part of the exoskeleton that forms protective case 500. Also, it will be appreciated that additional material may be provided at other locations on the case to provide a convenient way to coupled to case to another object.

As shown in FIG. 8, a protective case 605 may be provided with a hooking points 600 that allows the case to be attached to items such as belt loops, bike frames, or day packs. Some examples of such clip attachments are described in U.S. Prov. App. No. 60/519,523 filed Nov. 12, 2003, the complete disclosure of which is herein incorporated by reference.

Use of the Inflatable Protective Case

In one embodiment, the bladder forms a protective case that functions as a stand-alone product. Examples of consumer items that may be held in such a case include but are in no way limited to the following: personal electronics such as mobile phones, PDAs, MP3 players, personal music players, game boys/hand held computer games, data/memory storage, GPS, cameras, CD, DVD & audio players, and laptops; eyewear such as sunglasses, glasses and goggles; sporting goods such as rifle scopes/spotters, binoculars, fishing reels, compasses, pistols, pool cues and golf clubs; and miscellaneous consumer products such as scientific instruments, music mouthpieces, cigars, perfume bottles, jewelry/watches, personal items (e.g. keys, wallet, etc.) and measuring instruments.

In another embodiment, the bladder forms a protective case that at least partially encloses a consumer item. The case is adapted to be integrated with other products. The resulting protective case may be implemented into products including but in no way limited to clothing, suitcases, briefcases, backpacks, surfboard cases (protect edges of boards), travel golf cases, ski/snowboard cases, waterski/wakeboard cases camera cases, rifle cases, general travel cases and shipping cases fishing rod/reel cases, fanny packs, purses, tote bags, diaper bags, duffel bags, sport bags, saddle bags, life jackets, ski vests and hard storage cases (e.g. tool boxes, tote boxes, storage bins for motorized land and water crafts).

Other Embodiments

FIG. 9 illustrates an inflatable protective case 700 for insulating a personal electronic device from damage. Insulated protective case 700 is adapted to receive a personal electronics device 720, such as a PDA or the equivalent. Insulated protective case 700 has a transparent cover 712 (or simply an opening or a window) that allows the display of personal electronics device 720 to be visible. The protective case 700 has an inflatable, pull-down inflated flap portion 725 that covers transparent cover 712. Pull-down flap portion 725 forms an inflatable protective cover for personal electronic device 720 when folded and engaged with device 720. In this way, flap portion 725 protects the device 720 and may be folded down to expose the display through transparent cover 712. Case 700 is provided with VELCRO strips 710 that engage VELCRO strips (not shown) affixed to flap portion 725. However, it will be appreciated that other connectors could be used as well.

Insulated protective case 700 is constructed in much the same manner as the embodiment described in conjunction with FIG. 1. A pump assembly (not shown) is contained within a pump flap 705 for inflating case 700. As illustrated in FIG. 9, pump flap 705 may be adapted to display a custom logo. Release valve 715 deflates case 700 when not in use in a manner similar to other embodiments.

FIG. 10A shows an inflatable protective device 800 adapted to receive and protect mobile phone 802. Inflatable protective case 800 provides a transparent protective cover 803 that forms a protective cover over the buttons and/or display of phone 802. Alternatively, an open window may be provided to give access to the display and/or buttons. A transparent cover 803 is constructed of a material that allows the buttons to be both viewed and pressed, as well as the screen. Flap 805 contains a pump assembly (not shown) that infuses air into device 800 in a manner similar to other embodiments thereby creating a raised protective air cell 807 that form a protective case around the display face of mobile phone 802.

FIG. 10B and FIG. 10C illustrate an inflatable protective case 810 adapted to receive and protect a flip-style electronic device 815. Inflatable protective case 810 has two portions. First portion 820 protects the base electronics of flip-style electronic device 815. Second portion 825 protects the flip-up electronics of device 815. Both first portion 820 and second portion 825 have a transparent cover (not shown) that forms a protective cover over the buttons of device 815 while allowing the buttons to be viewed and pressed. Alternatively, an open window could be used. The combination of first portion 820 and second portion 825 forms an inflatable protective shell around flip-style electronics device 815 when the device is in a closed position. In the open position, first portion 820 and transparent cover form a protective shell around the base electronics and second portion 825 and transparent cover form a protective shell around the flip-up electronics. The remaining elements of case 810 may be constructed in much the same manner as described in conjunction with the embodiment of FIG. 1, including a pump assembly, release valve and the like.

FIGS. 11A and 11B illustrate another embodiment of a potential use of an inflatable protective case. As shown in FIG. 11A, inflatable protective case 900 may be integrated with an inside pocket of a jacket using any of the techniques described herein. Similarly, FIG. 11B shows an inflatable protective case 905 integrated with a cargo pocket on the front side of a pant leg using any of the techniques described herein. For instance, cases 900, 905 may be sewn into the jacket or pant or affixed in any suitable manner so as not to impair the integrity of the material. Cases 900, 905 may also be removably affixed to the jacket or pant. This arrangement provides an inconspicuous protective case for holding sunglasses, mobile phones or the like during any activity that involves sudden jarring movement or impact to the front side of the body. Cases 900 and 905 may be constructed similar to any of the cases described herein, including pump assemblies, bladders, release valves and the like.

FIG. 12 shows an inflatable protective case 910 integrated with a backpack. Protective case 910 may be removably attached to the backpack, incorporated into the material of the backpack (such as by sewing or gluing) or affixed in any suitable manner so as not to impair the integrity of the backpack material. This arrangement provides a highly effective protective case for a personal listening device, mobile phone, sunglasses or the like. FIGS. 13A and 13B show an inflatable protective carry case 920 in accordance with the present invention. Structural air cells 915, 917 of protective case 920 are inflated by a pump assembly (not shown) in a manner similar to other embodiments. In operation, air cells 915, 917 provide a support for the shape of case 920 and a damage protective barrier for any product contained within case 920. As shown in FIG. 13B, protective carry case 920 deflates for flat packing and light weigh portability.

FIG. 14 shows an inflatable protective case in accordance with yet another aspect of the present invention. Inflatable case 960 is comprised of a first inflatable bladder 950 and a second inflatable bladder 951. Inflatable bladder 950 has a pump assembly 952 comprising a pump chamber 966, a compressible material, a one-way air valve 956 and a hole 952. Inflatable bladder 951 has a pump assembly 953 comprising a pump chamber 965, a compressible bladder, a one-way air valve 957 and a hole 955. Pump assembly 952 injects air into bladder 950 and pump assembly 953 injects air into bladder 951. Bladder 950 has a plurality of air cells 958 and bladder 951 has a plurality of air cells 959. In the illustrated embodiment, there is no continuous path of air between air cells 958 of bladder 950 and air cells 959 of bladder 951. Inflatable bladder 951 may be folded over and welded to inflatable bladder 950, thereby forming an inflatable protective case with separately inflatable sections of protective inflatable bladder.

In the foregoing specification, the invention has been described with reference to a specific exemplary embodiment thereof. It will be evident that various modifications and changes may be made thereunto without departing from the broader spirit and scope of the invention as set forth in the appended claims. The specification and drawings are, accordingly, to be regarded in an illustrative rather than a restrictive sense, the invention being limited only by the provided claims.