Apple looking into illuminated touchpads with varying colors, brightness

in General Discussion edited January 2014
An Apple patent application published on Thursday shows the company is investigating illuminated touchpad technology extended from research done on the legacy iPod's touch wheel, possibly for use in its MacBook line of laptops or a peripheral device like the Magic Trackpad.

The patent, filed for in April and published on Thursday, is aptly titled "Illuminated Touchpad" and describes an "improved feedback mechanism" for the touch-sensitive input technology, one aspect of which relates to illuminating the surface of a touchpad device in relation to a user's finger movements.

It can be gathered from the patent illustrations that the idea was perhaps originally meant to be used in an iteration of the touch sensitive scroll wheel-toting iPod, but the filing date suggests Apple is continuing work on the technology.

Apple's patent application is a continuation of a separate filing for a "Touch pad with feedback," and is related to a number of multitouch and touchpad innovations.

In the patent description, Apple points out the technology is not meant merely as a backlight to find the touchpad in a dark environment, but instead aims to "give other feedback related to how the touch pad is being used." For example, an illumination point follows a user's finger as it moves across the touch sensitive surface and can change color or brightness dynamically according to gestures or input pressure.

Illuminated Touchpad
Block diagram illustrating illuminated touchpad tech. | Source: USPTO

From the patent application:
Touch pads typically include an opaque touch panel, a controller and a software driver. The touch panel registers touch events and sends these signals to the controller. The controller processes these signals and sends the data to the computer system. The software driver translates the touch events into computer events.

Although touch pads work well, improvements to their form feel and functionality are desired. By way of example, it may be desirable to provide visual stimuli at the touch pad so that a user can better operate the touch pad. For example, the visual stimuli may be used (among others) to alert a user when the touch pad is registering a touch, alert a user where the touch is occurring on the touch pad, provide feedback related to the touch event, indicate the state of the touch pad, and/or the like.
Apple notes that a wide array of embodiments are covered by the proposed patent, including devices that give feedback to user gestures which could be helpful in a number of computing situations.

Touchpad Gesture
Source: USPTO

One example points out that illumination can occur before or after a touch event has been recorded, meaning a visual effect can begin before a touch event occurs, thus inviting a user to touch the lit area. Conversely, the area where a user just touched may remain illuminated well after the touch event, leaving a kind of marker on the device's surface. This embodiment also gives rise to visual effects of having a "leading" or "trailing" edge in regard to where a user's finger has been or where it is going.

Touchpad Trailing
Illustration of "leading" and "trailing" on iPod scroll wheel. | Source: USPTO

As for the construction of the touchpad, the patent calls for a wide variety of solutions like existing capacitive touchscreen technology. Powering the illumination would be cheap and efficient LEDs arranged in simple patterns to more complex configurations which allow for more accurate feedback. Because the low-power units would run cool, they can be placed directly beneath a touchpad. Light distribution would be handled by LED arrangement or through diffusing methods. Light pipes placed away from the touch sensitive surface are also mentioned as a viable option.

Touchpad Build
Light panel diagram. | Source: USPTO

The patent makes note of LCD and OLED technologies being used as input methods:
Alternatively, the visual feedback system may be a graphically based system that generates graphics at the input surface. LCDs, OLEDs and electronic inks are examples of graphically based systems. These devices however can be cost prohibitive and more complex to implement when compared to light based systems.
Besides the input feedback solutions mentiioned above, Apple notes the illuminated touch pad can be configured to "ebb in and out" when a computer is in sleep mode, much like the small white status LED on current MacBooks.

Touchpad Schematic
Simple schematic drawing of illuminated touchpad tech. | Source: USPTO

A final embodiment suggests the touchpad can be used as a timer or clock as well as a user interface for a media player.

It remains unclear if Apple will one day use the described technology in a consumer product, but the company has recently rolled out a number of cutting edge input devices including the multitouch Magic Mouse. Apple already introduced glass trackpads across its MacBook line of computers, the first being implemented in the 2008 unibody MacBook Pro, as well as the Magic Trackpad peripheral, making implementation of this specific patent seemingly more feasible.


  • Reply 1 of 14
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    I've been wanting this for a long time. It's one area that could be best served with an OLED display because any area that isn't in use would be unlit. There are widgets and apps that require repeated clicking that would be served well by this innovation. Calculator comes to mine.

    This isn't the first patent we've seen from Apple on this concept. We've also seen a Dell prototype that attempted to follow suit but there is so much wrong with their design physically and looking at how poorly Win OEMs have done to get large trackpad drivers working well I doubt they invested the time and money into getting this to work well.

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  • Reply 2 of 14
    rogifanrogifan Posts: 10,669member
    I can hear the haters now 'Apple coppied Dell!' :lol:
  • Reply 3 of 14
    timmydaxtimmydax Posts: 284member

    Originally Posted by Rogifan View Post

    I can hear the haters now 'Apple coppied Dell!' image


    More like Daniel Eran Dilger?



    This was (as is obvious from the url) in 2008...


  • Reply 4 of 14
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,784member
    timmydax wrote: »
    More like Daniel Eran Dilger?

    This was (as is obvious from the url) in 2008...


    Why stop there? Why not make that entire bottom section virtual, keyboard and all, even detach and. ..... Oh wait a minute ....
  • Reply 5 of 14
    ssquirrelssquirrel Posts: 1,196member

    Touch screen lighting up as you touch it and being sensitive to rpessure.  Apparently Apple has been playing w/Korg Kaossilators and the Tenori-On.

  • Reply 6 of 14
    andysolandysol Posts: 2,506member
    Meh. Who looks at the touchpad and not the screen when using it?
  • Reply 7 of 14
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    andysol wrote: »
    Meh. Who looks at the touchpad and not the screen when using it?

    I do when I'm using my iPhone and iPad, and because some types of computing are more difficult to use when you have to move a mouse around to a seres of small boxes to click I do fund myself grabbing these other devices specifically for these tasks.
  • Reply 9 of 14
    flaneurflaneur Posts: 4,526member
    dieselbug wrote: »

    You're right, Apple doesn't offer a red glitter finish—yet.
  • Reply 10 of 14
    malaxmalax Posts: 1,598member


    Originally Posted by TimmyDax View Post


    More like Daniel Eran Dilger?



    This was (as is obvious from the url) in 2008...



    You realize that the patent has nothing to "make a touch pan into a second high-resolution display," right?


    It's about adding visual feedback to an input device that is not a display surface.  At first blush this patent seems unnecessary: "why do I need visual feedback from the device itself when I'm already getting feedback from my primary screen--seeing the cursor move, etc."  But that's only because everyone has written software assuming that the primary screen must provide feedback (or the computer must provide some sort of feedback in any case, it could be audio).  In some ways, this is a direct descendant of the caps lock light on modern keyboards.  In the bad old days, computers would have a cryptic line of characters/symbols on the screen to alert users to the fact that caps lock was on and such.  Now, we trust the keyboard to do that (which the Dell keyboard I'm typing this on does a particularly poor job of, since the caps lock light is over a foot away from the caps lock key, but I digress).


    When I start up my MBA, I sometimes move my finger around on the Magic Trackpad to see when it's responsive.  But in reality I'm testing lots of different things.  If the cursor doesn't move, is that because the MacBook is not quite awake yet or because my trackpad is out of juice or not connected?  If the trackpad responded to my touch independently, that would be useful feedback.  A trivial example, I know, but the magic of Apple at its best is that they sweat all the little details.

  • Reply 11 of 14
    ssquirrelssquirrel Posts: 1,196member


    I posted about the Korg Kaossilators already.  That is the KP3 (aka Korg Kaoss Pad) installed in that guitar.  It wasn't invented by Mr Manson (the guitar luthier, not Marilyn Manson heh)

  • Reply 12 of 14
    asciiascii Posts: 5,936member

    It could perhaps glow if the current app has a modal dialog up that you have to click, one way or the other, but there's no need to have it glowing all the time. The whole thing about touch pads is that they work by touch not sight.

  • Reply 13 of 14
    gazoobeegazoobee Posts: 3,754member


    Originally Posted by malax View Post


    You realize that the patent has nothing to "make a touch pan into a second high-resolution display," right? ...


    I was waiting for someone to point this out.  The whole thread was just about down the rabbit hole on "second screen" technology which is not what the patent is about at all.  Having an additional screen for small jobs and updates has been tried many times.  It fails to win any consumers every time.  

  • Reply 14 of 14
    galleygalley Posts: 971member
    Those fat fingers scare me!
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