The concept comes from a patent continuation published this week by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and discovered by AppleInsider. Entitled "Configurable Buttons for Electronic Devices," Apple's invention describes a physical button with an associated touch sensor that could detect when a user's finger is touching it.
By doing this, the button could tell when it is being activated by a finger, and not by brushing up against or into an inanimate object. In this method, Apple's invention would prevent accidental button presses on a portable device.
Such functionality could be particularly beneficial with wearable electronics, such as the company's rumored "iWatch," as highly portable devices can be susceptible to accidental contact when being worn.
The patent itself includes illustrations for what appears to be an unused design for the wearable clip-on iPod shuffle. In one example the buttons on the device are temporarily disabled when the clip on the rear of the device is being squeezed, allowing a user to place the device on their clothing without activating the buttons on the front.
The invention notes that the need to avoid "unintentional operation" of buttons can apply to all portable electronics, including smartphones, tablets, media players, and notebooks. Examples given by Apple include power, sleep, menu, volume, and multipurpose buttons.
Apple already has a touch-sensitive button of sorts on the iPhone 5s, as the smartphone's home button includes the Touch ID fingerprint scanner. Using Touch ID, a user can securely unlock their iPhone after the handset identifies their fingerprint from an actual finger placed atop the button.
But the patent continuation revealed by the USPTO this week suggests that more basic touch sensing capabilities could be used on other buttons in future portable devices from Apple. U.S. Patent No. 8,717,199 is credited to inventors John Benjamin Filson, Stephen Brian Lynch, Emery Sanford, and Pinida Jan Moolsintong.