Apple's iOS, originally branded "iPhone OS" before taking on the current moniker in 2010, has always relied on touch gestures to navigate its user interface, with swiping and pinch-to-zoom taking the place of monotonous taps and virtual buttons. The input scheme has been adopted in all aspects of the OS, save for one: the keyboard.
While the keyboard seen in iOS 7 has gone through some design tweaks, the backend has remained largely unchanged from its original incarnation. Apple's current solution is intuitive, with dynamically scaling hit zones, intelligent autocorrect, and a number of other usability features, but some may argue the existing implementation fails to take full advantage of the latest hardware's capabilities.
Further, Apple does not allow the installation of third-party keyboards for security and system stability reasons, meaning iOS devices can't access apps like the popular Swype for Google's Android.
Apple's current iOS 7 keyboard as seen on and iPhone 5s (left) and iPad mini.
A patent awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday, however, shows Apple is not only open to the idea of buffed virtual QWERTY input, but has been experimenting with the technology since at least 2007.
Apple's U.S. Patent No. 8,542,206 for "Swipe gestures for touch screen keyboards" has roots in the basic touchscreen properties used throughout iOS, but adapts them for a more space-limited use case scenario seen with the keyboard. Although the patent covers single-finger and multi-finger actions, functionality is limited to swiping gestures.
The document describes a number of functions that can be made available to the user. For example, a swipes can invoke spacing, erasing, punctuation, carriage returns, and other actions common to text entry. In addition, with multi-finger input, these functions may take on degrees, such as deleting a word or even an entire line of text.
Illustrating the invention's utility, the above picture shows a user attempting to enter "ok" in response to a message. While "o" was entered correctly, the user tapped "j" instead of the adjacent "k" button. With the current iOS keyboard, the "j" must be erased with the Delete key if "oj" is not autocorrected to "ok." Apple notes a simple one-finger swipe to the left could stand as a replacement for this action.
Graphical assets associated with certain functions, like backspace, can be displayed to remind users of the direction in which to swipe to activate a certain key. For example, top hats with arrows facing in the direction of the swipe can be overlaid on the keyboard's GUI when a gesture is invoked.
As mentioned above, a multi-finger implementation can also be employed to augment the key action. In this example, a two-finger swipe to the left would erase the last word typed, while a three-finger swipe would delete the line.
Other gestures include up swipe to initiate the Shift function, down for a carriage return and right to insert a character space. These, too, can be accompanied by multi-finger options.
Two-finger swipes up can be translated to Caps Lock, while a three-finger gesture may bring up special accented characters or an international keyboard. Multi-finger swipes to the right could be used to invoke a period and a space, word suggestions and the display a listing of possible word completions. Finally, downward two- and three-finger swipes can enter a punctuation mark or bring up a punctuation pad.
The patent goes into detail regarding input thresholds and how the UI detects and determines what counts as a swipe. In addition, more advanced cases are described that use diagonal swipes for even more functionality.
It is unclear if Apple will decide to include the technology into a future version of iOS, though the compnay has shown little interest in changing the system-wide keyboard beyond Tuesday's patent.
Apple's swipe gestures for keyboard patent was first filed for in 2007 and credits Carl Wayne Westerman, Henri Lamiraux and Matthew Evan Dreisbach as its inventors.