Apple patents switch-less Force Touch keyboard for Mac

Posted:
in General Discussion edited November 2015
Apple is researching ways to implement its Force Touch technology into Mac keyboards, according to a patent published on Tuesday, a move that would not only cut down on key height by removing physical switches, but expand a device's overall utility.


Source: USPTO


As granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple's U.S. Patent No. 9,178,509 for an "Ultra low travel keyboard" describes the basic operating principles behind a completely switch-less QWERTY input mechanism reminiscent of the company's Force Touch trackpads. Removing mechanical switches from the equation cuts precious millimeters off key height, allowing for even thinner MacBook designs.

Apple's current MacBook and Mac accessory lineups employ modified scissor switches, or butterfly switches on the 12-inch Retina MacBook, nestled within hollow key caps. Today's patent mirrors the aesthetic of existing designs, but deviates from established technology by replacing mechanical switches for a stack of sensors, actuators and supporting circuitry.

Theoretically the system operates akin to Apple's Force Touch trackpads, but on a much larger scale; one force sensor package for each keyboard key. Force sensors configured to measure downward pressure are integrated beneath the keyboard's key caps, while integrated actuators -- part of the key stack -- generate haptic feedback.




Ideal force input hardware includes resistive sensors, strain gauges and capacitive sensors, though other components capable of determining downward force and sending a modulated force signal to a computer's CPU are also acceptable. Such sensors can measure the slightest change in distance, offering a highly customizable platform on which to receive varying but distinct levels of input.

Another key stack layer is dedicated to an actuator element implemented with a piezoelectric material. As described, a piezoelectric substrate generates electrical charge when a mechanical force is applied and, conversely, generates mechanical strain from an applied electrical field. These unique electrical properties can be exploited to generate tactile feedback on demand.

In practice the proposed keyboard detects a particular level of input via modulated output signals from an embedded force sensor. To determine the amount of applied force on a single key, signals are received by a keyboard controller and sent off to a keyboard module for processing. A keystroke is subsequently logged and users are provided a corresponding level of haptic feedback presented as a "click" or simulated mechanical movement by the integrated actuator.

With a granular level of input force determination, Apple's keyboard and coexisting software logic can support multiple operations per key. For example, applying a first amount of force to an "A" key might input an "A" character onscreen, while a second level of pressure triggers a system command or other function. A similar procedure is accomplished with 3D Touch on iPhone 6s, which lets users invoke force-sensitive iOS features like Peek and Pop content previews, Quick Actions and more.




It is unclear if Apple has plans to roll out a Force Touch enabled keyboard based on today's patent, though no evidence exists of work on actual hardware or software implementations. Considering some users are already put off by Apple's current low-travel MacBook key mechanisms, a Force Touch keyboard might take some convincing.

Then again, each successive MacBook generation comes with a thinner chassis. A switch-less keyboard design would go a long way toward consolidating dead space.

Apple's Force Touch keyboard patent was first filed for in September 2012 and credits Jeffrey T. Bernstein as its inventor.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 30
    Stupid idea.

    But good to protect the ip.
  • Reply 2 of 30
    9secondko wrote: »
    Stupid idea.

    But good to protect the ip.
    how can it be a stupid idea but good to protect.

    Personally I think this is a great idea.
  • Reply 3 of 30
    eriamjheriamjh Posts: 1,079member
    Thinnest keyboard clicks like a mofo without moving at all.

    I like it.
  • Reply 4 of 30
    "Allowing for even thinner MacBooks..."

    Dang. I wonder just how thin Apple's laptops are going to be in the coming years.
  • Reply 5 of 30
    9secondko wrote: »
    Stupid idea.

    But good to protect the ip.

    Not stupid at all.

    Though this would seem to require some retraining for touch typists in order to register adequate forces for each respective key, and to get used to the feel of haptic feedback, new keyboards could be better sealed against moisture and dirt and be made thinner and more durable.

    This patent would garner Apple more revenue from licensing fees and/or further leave the competition in the dust.

    I love the trackpad on our new rMB, and 3D Touch on my iPhone 6s+.
  • Reply 6 of 30
    dugbugdugbug Posts: 283member
    I would think more iPad smartcover
  • Reply 7 of 30
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Lord Amhran View Post

    "Allowing for even thinner MacBooks..."



    Dang. I wonder just how thin Apple's laptops are going to be in the coming years.

     

    Well, with roll-up/foldable displays and keyboards the limiting factor is the actual components (chips etc) and importantly the batteries.
  • Reply 8 of 30
    rogifanrogifan Posts: 10,669member
    Btw, this patent was filed in 2012.
  • Reply 9 of 30
    dugbugdugbug Posts: 283member
    rogifan wrote: »
    Btw, this patent was filed in 2012.

    That's to be expected. They were deep into force touch r&d at that point
  • Reply 10 of 30
    thedbathedba Posts: 456member
    danielsw wrote: »
    Not stupid at all.

    Though this would seem to require some retraining for touch typists in order to register adequate forces for each respective key, and to get used to the feel of haptic feedback, new keyboards could be better sealed against moisture and dirt and be made thinner and more durable.

    This patent would garner Apple more revenue from licensing fees and/or further leave the competition in the dust.

    I love the trackpad on our new rMB, and 3D Touch on my iPhone 6s+.

    I don't think much re training is needed in this case, or at least for the vast majority of non touch typists out there. A full software keyboard with haptic feedback. That could be applied to iPad all the way up to Macs.
    Furthermore in multi lingual countries, all one has to do is set the appropriate language settings.
    Of course all this makes no mention of how your keyboard can be reconfigured into a game controller when necessary.
    Possibilities are endless.
  • Reply 11 of 30
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Lord Amhran View Post



    "Allowing for even thinner MacBooks..."



    Dang. I wonder just how thin Apple's laptops are going to be in the coming years.



    And here it comes: The revolutionary MacBook, first of its kind, with a negative height!

  • Reply 12 of 30

    The movement and space savings might not be the biggest point here, but that it allows for a completely sealed keyboard. Together with removing fans, new MacBooks would be close to be water proof. No more problems with spilled liquids, and people will finally be able to use their MacBooks in the rain.

  • Reply 13 of 30
    Don't understand this harrowing trend toward thin, thinner, thinnest. I've used the new Macbook keyboard and it felt almost as uncomfortable as peck typing a touchscreen. Have they forgotten human beings and not birds will be using these things?
  • Reply 14 of 30
    9secondko wrote: »
    Stupid idea.

    But good to protect the ip.

    I remember when the first "chiclet" style keyboards first came out and people decried how impossible they were to "touch type" on... The idea was that keyboards needed the travel range of the keys to be more like that on an IBM Selectric typewriter. The typewriter keyboard has always been under modification since it first showed up on a Mechanical typewriter in the 1800s. So, I don't think that Apple's idea is stupid, it's just moving the evolution of the keyboard along. In addition, if each key could become more multi-functional than currently, due to 3D touch, then the keyboard will service more languages and purposes then it has in the past.
  • Reply 15 of 30
    danielsw wrote: »

    This patent would garner Apple more revenue from licensing fees and/or further leave the competition in the dust.

    I think Apple's goal is more of the later than anything. Apple has shown also to allow an idea they initiate to be widely used if it promotes a standard that Apple has a head start on implementing, but otherwise Apple loves exclusive hardware features, such as 3D touch, Touch ID, and the A9 SoC.
  • Reply 16 of 30
    The current MB keyboard is less than ideal. If they go to one without any physical feedback? Count me out entirely.
  • Reply 17 of 30
    On the one hand a natural extension of Force Touch. On the other hand it reminds me of the iPhone 6 where for the first time there was a real trade off between one handed use and screen estate. Screen estate won. Here, the haptic feel of typin could be the price of thinner MacBooks. I have t experienced the haptic feedback force touch provides. So maybe it's sufficient.

    Apart from that I can either envision distance key shapes with some kind of borders such that your fingers have orientation, or the complete absence of this which would enable all kinds of surfaces for input. Keyboard and trackpad in one, eg. Application specific controls such as sliders. Cool if some material layer creating application specific key/control boundaries for haptic orientation could be added. Some time ago, there were some prototypes shown that do exactly this. No idea how much this is ready for prime time yet.
  • Reply 18 of 30
    The current MB keyboard is less than ideal. If they go to one without any physical feedback? Count me out entirely.

    Yep. Accuracy becomes increasingly difficult without physical key separation and key travel (this is why the "predictive typing" feature came about for iOS, because typing error rates have skyrocketed). For professional writers there have been a lot of criticisms of the new keyboards coming from Apple. Thinner at the expense of utility is not always the best solution.

    I've said it before, in my experience the best "keyboard" I've ever used has been the IBM Selectric typewriter.
  • Reply 19 of 30
    thedbathedba Posts: 456member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SpamSandwich View Post



    I've said it before, in my experience the best "keyboard" I've ever used has been the IBM Selectric typewriter.

     

    In your own home where nobody else can hear you typing, that's fine.

    In a crowded office environment, eliminating that awful clickity clack of those keyboards, is a god send. 

  • Reply 20 of 30
    Yep. Accuracy becomes increasingly difficult without physical key separation and key travel (this is why the "predictive typing" feature came about for iOS, because typing error rates have skyrocketed). For professional writers there have been a lot of criticisms of the new keyboards coming from Apple. Thinner at the expense of utility is not always the best solution.

    I've said it before, in my experience the best "keyboard" I've ever used has been the IBM Selectric typewriter.

    I like the current keyboards well enough, though the MBP feels better (and closer to my current old MBA) then the newer MBA's. The retina MacBook isn't even an option, that keyboard is just bad.

    I like the Pismo and TiBook keyboards too, quite nice. Pismo has a lot of keytravel, the TiBook is snappy and smooth.

    I use a Logitech gaming keyboard with my desktop, that thing is nice and has held up well. I don't necessarily pound on keyboards, but I do have a decent amount of impact.
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