Future MacBook keyboards may come loaded with in-key displays, capacitive touch sensors

Posted:
in General Discussion edited May 2014
While Apple's most recent innovations have come from portables like the iPad Air and iPhone 5s, a document uncovered on Thursday reveals a feature-laden keyboard with multi-function "keystacks" that integrate miniature displays, touch sensors and haptic feedback mechanisms.




Showing the company is still making advances in more traditional tech, an Apple patent filing for "Multi-functional keyboard assemblies" describes a keyboard consisting of an array of so-called "keystacks," or individual keys layered with electronics, sensors and switches.

Published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple's application takes cues from third-party accessories like Art. Lebedev Studio's Optimus Maximus keyboard, which sported clear keycaps overlaid atop small configurable OLED displays. While both standalone and integrated laptop keyboards are covered in the patent language, it should be noted that the first illustration shows a current-generation MacBook Air.

The Maximus, and successor models like the Optimus Popularis that feature keys with built-in displays, are highly functional tools as each key can be mapped to output specific letters, icons or pictures with corresponding customizable commands. Being small-batch products, the Optimus line never really caught on due to prohibitively high price tags and sub-par performance.


Source: USPTO


Apple's invention builds on this display-within-key concept by adding multiple layers to the keystack. While the Optimus is limited to input via a physical switch and output through an OLED, Apple's invention allows for multiple modes of input and output.

For example, the multi-functional keystack can be configured to accept user input through a switch-type button, while a capacitive surface component can provide a second independent input through multitouch gestures.


Cross-sectional view of keystack.


Going further, Apple notes the system gives users visual feedback through a backlit display integrated into each key. Based on OLED, LCD or other screen technology, the display sits above or below touch circuitry and is viewed through a transparent portion of the key. In some embodiments, the keycaps are made of glass or a similarly rigid -- yet durable -- material that is stronger and thinner than traditional plastic parts.

Diving into the workings of Apple's patent, the invention states each key has its own circuitry that is operably connected to one or more system processors. The basic keystack incorporates a support structure (scissor or butterfly switch), flex circuit, light guide and display. More advanced forms add in capacitive sensing and haptic feedback mechanisms.


Key covers.


Acting as a regular keyboard, the invention allows users to reproduce glyphs, characters or symbols onscreen as they are seen displayed on each key. With dedicated circuitry in communication with a computer's processor, however, the keyboard is able to output visual and tactile information corresponding to a user's input.

The keyboard accepts normal dome switch presses, pressure-sensitive input and capacitive touch-based gestures. Using the latter embodiment, Apple's keyboard is able to replace a traditional mouse or multitouch trackpad. In one example, the document describes a user flipping through the pages of an e-book in iBooks by swiping across certain keys or key combinations.


Both scissor (left) and dome type switches are supported in Apple's invention.


Finally, switches located at the base of each keystack are, in some forms of the invention, able to respond to user input through haptic feedback like vibrations, clicks and increased resistance in relation to a button press.

The rest of the application covers details regarding keystack implementation in standalone and integrated keyboards. Variations on display techniques are also discussed and include less dynamic forms of visual feedback relating to multi-colored light sources and optical filters.

Apple's multi-functional keyboard assemblies patent application claims benefit of a provisional application first filed for in 2012 and credits Craig C. Leong, James J. Niu, John M. Brock, Keith J. Hendren, Thomas W. Wilson, Jr., Bartley K. Andre, Mikael Silvanto and Dinesh C. Mathew as its inventors.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 37
    irelandireland Posts: 17,747member
    Just has a thought, what if the keys were precisely flush with the surface of the computer and the entire area replaced the trackpad as a touch sensitive surface. Only issue then is clicking.
  • Reply 2 of 37
    I see the first shipping product being $200, black, and ideal for FCP-X. Next stop, a Magic Trackpad that, with a gesture, becomes a number pad, and or a custom keypad, or a...
  • Reply 3 of 37
    lorin schultzlorin schultz Posts: 2,771member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by GordonPrice67 View Post



    I see the first shipping product being $200

     

    I think you should be prepared to add a zero.

  • Reply 4 of 37

    I'm down. Best purchase in recent memory. Anything to make a better version is gold.

  • Reply 5 of 37
    revenantrevenant Posts: 616member

    yes please.  this could help for non-English speaking people.  I would love to see a keyboard in a different language- but they all have English.  this way when i want to type Korean, Czech or Norwegian i can just change the keys like i do on the iPhone/ipad.

     

    however, i would also love to see the keyboard go.  I would imagine that they could save room if they did away with the keyboard and just had another display that could act as a giant mousepad/ipad and a keyboard when one needs it.  obviously not everyone would want it, so it could be an upgrade.

  • Reply 6 of 37
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Lorin Schultz View Post

    I think you should be prepared to add a zero.


    $2000 for a keyboard? When they are selling arguably a $4000 computer for $3000? Maybe $200 is a little low, but I'll bet nothing more than $300, and that would be for a VERY useful bit of kit. Maybe even keyboard with customizable keys and a trackpad grafted onto the side. A new Magic Keyboard Pro if you will.

    Also, as revenant points out, language assigned physically to keyboards is a problem to be solved. I am in Berlin, and buying a new computer is problematic because I would want an english keyboard. If the keyboard could be dynamically assigned, that would be slick. Quickly switching between languages as well as application specific layouts would be a major selling point, and save Apple the logistics of making machines for each language, and maybe getting the ratios wrong.

    Time will tell.

  • Reply 7 of 37
    rickagrickag Posts: 1,626member
    Another use for sapphire cover glass. :)
  • Reply 8 of 37
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,310member
    If only I could type ... sigh
  • Reply 9 of 37
    hill60hill60 Posts: 6,992member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by GordonPrice67 View Post

     

    I would want an english keyboard. If the keyboard could be dynamically assigned, that would be slick.


     

    ZWERTY to QWERTY at the tick of a checkbox in settings.

  • Reply 10 of 37
    dysamoriadysamoria Posts: 3,299member
    Posting "news" stories about patents for impractical designs with geeky possibilities, filed just to cover Apple's remotely possible future lawsuits against others, is about as speculative as the patent filings themselves.

    None of the actual product we see today as "game changers" was preceded by a patent filing giving away the future of Apple product.
  • Reply 11 of 37
    pmzpmz Posts: 3,433member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by hill60 View Post

     

     

    ZWERTY to QWERTY at the tick of a checkbox in settings.


    Not just this but imagine the Language change options. Huge manufacturing benefits.

  • Reply 12 of 37
    tallest skiltallest skil Posts: 43,399member

    Reminds me of the Art Lebedev Studio keyboards. You know, the one with 108 OLED keys that costs $1,500. And this one, which is a touchscreen concept of theirs.

     

     

    In that it’s a meaningless middle ground between keyboard+mouse and a real touchscreen desktop.

  • Reply 14 of 37
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    I'm not so keen on a display on the keys but I'd like one in the tracked.
  • Reply 15 of 37
    lorin schultzlorin schultz Posts: 2,771member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by GordonPrice67 View Post

     
    $2000 for a keyboard? When they are selling arguably a $4000 computer for $3000? Maybe $200 is a little low, but I'll bet nothing more than $300


     

     

    First, I do not accept the argument that Apple is selling a $4000 computer for $3000. My shopping exercises put Apple's prices among the highest on the market. Other, similar machines have also been very expensive, but Apple always comes in $100-200 more than the nearest comparable equivalent. Perhaps that premium is justified by superior materials, but the point stands that Apple is not doing anyone any pricing favours.

     

    As for the price of the keyboard, I'm basing my estimate on existing technology. The much less capable Art Lebedev is USD$1500:

     

    http://www.artlebedev.com/everything/optimus/popularis/

     

    That $1500 does not include haptic feedback or capacitive touch, so adding the additional features Apple's patent app includes will drive the price even higher. Apple will achieve a lower cost of manufacturing through economies of scale, then immediately swallow those savings with 40% margins.

     

    How did you come up with your figure?

  • Reply 16 of 37
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    ...but Apple always comes in $100-200 more than the nearest comparable equivalent.

    On the higher end Apple tends to come in lower than the competition.
  • Reply 17 of 37
    gregnacugregnacu Posts: 29member
    Yeah, that sounds Great! I want an Esperanto Keyboard! Which Apple doesn't support, because it has such a small userbase. But if all it were was a software addition, there would be no extra cost in supporting "small" language bases.

    Also, I've always wanted to teach myself to use the DVORAK layout. But not being able to see the letters in their rearranged positions has been a daunting setback. I would LOVE it, if during my spare time I could have my key caps automatically rearrange to display DVORAK, but display QWERTY when I get to work and have to really get stuff done without stumbling over my hobbies.
  • Reply 18 of 37

    I think a Pro keyboard that is built around iPad technology could be the answer.

    I personally don't like the idea of lots of little OLED screens in separate keys.

     

    I'd rather see a keyboard based on iPad hardware + pressure sensitive display.

    This way you could rest your fingers on the keys and use  haptic feedback to simulate key presses.

    This also gives lots of flexibility with custom keyboard layouts as well as non-traditional inputs such as sliders, knobs and color pickers.

     

    If based on iPad technology the price could definitely start in the $300-500 range and come down over time.

  • Reply 19 of 37
    jltnoljltnol Posts: 5member
    this has kind of been done a few years ago...


    No doubt Apple could make it better, but this isn't new.



    http://www.artlebedev.com/everything/optimus/maximus/
  • Reply 20 of 37
    malaxmalax Posts: 1,598member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by jltnol View Post



    this has kind of been done a few years ago...



    No doubt Apple could make it better, but this isn't new.



    http://www.artlebedev.com/everything/optimus/maximus/

    Does no one read the articles before posting?  It specifically talks about the existing Art Lebedev keyboards.

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