Touch-sensitive MacBook Pro keys could work together as a trackpad

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware
A future keyboard for a Mac may offer touch-sensitive keys on top of mechanical switches, a feature that could effectively turn the keyboard surface into a simulated trackpad.

MacBook Pro keyboard


The design of the MacBook Pro and other notebooks relies on there being a separate trackpad and keyboard, giving two separate input surfaces for typing and for moving a cursor. While it is possible to control the cursor in other ways, such as by connecting a mouse or employing a touchscreen in some notebooks, the trackpad has endured as a mainstay of standard notebook designs.

The trackpad, like touchscreens and mice, do have the disadvantage for users of pulling the hands relatively far away from the keyboard to interact with the cursor. This can reduce the efficiency of the user's typing, slowing down their typing speed to handle the interaction and possibly breaking their concentration for a short time.

In a patent granted to Apple on Tuesday by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, titled "Touch sensitive mechanical keyboard," Apple proposes the use of a mechanical keyboard equipped with a touch-sensitive surface. The top of each keycap of the keyboard would be capable of recognizing hand and finger motion, which could be interpreted into cursor movements on a connected Mac display.

An illustration of where the touch-sensitive keys would be on a typical Apple keyboard
An illustration of where the touch-sensitive keys would be on a typical Apple keyboard


By making the keyboard itself a touch-sensitive surface, this would allow for the user to move the cursor without moving their hand at all. It would be feasible that a simple hand gesture or a move of a finger on a key could be enough for the required interaction, with no need to spend time moving the hands away and returning them to the keyboard.

In Apple's concept, the keycaps would feature a cluster of capacitive sensors near the surface, in order to read pressure and movements. Larger movements would be made by interpreting a movement that goes off from one keycap and onto a nearby neighbor, which may continue to subsequent neighboring keys.

The keyboard has two different modes, enabling it to be used for typing or as a trackpad. By pressing arbitrary combinations of keys, or by the keyboard detecting a user's motion as wishing to use the touch-sensitive functionality, the keyboard can switch between the two modes.

By pressing a key combination with one hand, the other could use the keyboard as a touchpad
By pressing a key combination with one hand, the other could use the keyboard as a touchpad


Apple files numerous patent applications with the USPTO on a weekly basis, but while the existence of a patent indicates areas of interest for the company's research and development efforts, it does not guarantee the concept will make its way into a future product or service.

The invention's sole inventor is listed as John Greer Elias. Searches on Justia reveal Elias is connected to a large number of Apple patents, with filings covering multitouch functionality for touchscreens, hover gestures, magnetic sensors, and even VR gloves.

The patent has an interesting history, as it was originally filed on December 12, 2008, meaning it took over 11 years to move from application to patent. In that time, Elias worked with Steven J. Martisauskas on the similar "Fusion Keyboard," which differs in being able to detect the depression of individual keys, as well as their touch capabilities.

The Fusion Keyboard patent had a far faster turnaround time at the USPTO, having been filed in 2011 and granted in 2015.

Other keyboard patent filings include Apple investigating the use of new mechanisms to make the keyboard thinner, keyboards without keys that use haptic feedback, optical keyboard switches, and the use of an OLED panel as a second screen that doubles as a keyboard. Apple has also considered enabling keyboard accessories for an iPad to transmit key presses via the touchscreen, and adding screens to the trackpad and keyboard.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 17
    I'm a bit pessimistic.  Sounds like it might be as successful as the 'amazing' butterfly keyboard... ;)
  • Reply 2 of 17
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 11,421member
    That sounds AWFUL!
    jeffharris
  • Reply 3 of 17
    IBM used to have this pressure sensitive "nub" in the middle of the keyboard as the mouse, it took me a while to get use to it and I did not like it.  The patent looked interesting but seems too confusing for the average users.
  • Reply 4 of 17
    razorpitrazorpit Posts: 1,796member
    I always thought the 2016 keyboard was a stepping stone to eventually get to a full touchscreen keyboard with haptic feedback.
  • Reply 5 of 17
    I like the idea/concept but I'm skeptical they can implement it properly.  Reaching away from the keyboard for a trackpad or mouse is a productivity killer, and many times keyboard shortcuts are impractical.
  • Reply 6 of 17
    anomeanome Posts: 1,474member
    razorpit said:
    I always thought the 2016 keyboard was a stepping stone to eventually get to a full touchscreen keyboard with haptic feedback.
    That was my thought, too. On the other hand, the backlash might have delayed, or even completely sunk any plans to go down that path.

    I don't see this working well. It works OK as a fudge on the iOS (glass) keyboard because the surface is flat, but with the keys there...Also, how does the trackpad feature impact the working of the mechanical keyboard?
  • Reply 7 of 17
    entropysentropys Posts: 3,402member
    Too complicated, unintuitive.
    WWSJD? I bet it would be entertaining.
    edited March 2020
  • Reply 8 of 17
    Larry Tesler is rolling in his grave!
  • Reply 9 of 17
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 12,017member
    Don't knock it till ya try it.  (But what fun would that be? Criticize NOW!! Don't wait!)
    edited March 2020
  • Reply 10 of 17
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 11,421member
    IBM used to have this pressure sensitive "nub" in the middle of the keyboard as the mouse, it took me a while to get use to it and I did not like it.  The patent looked interesting but seems too confusing for the average users.

    They still do.   It's useful.  But I usually just use the trackpad or a mouse.  They seem more precise.
  • Reply 11 of 17
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 11,421member
    razorpit said:
    I always thought the 2016 keyboard was a stepping stone to eventually get to a full touchscreen keyboard with haptic feedback.

    That would make me a Windows man.  The butterfly keyboard with almost no travel was my limit.
    javacowboy
  • Reply 12 of 17
    MacBook Wheel:



  • Reply 13 of 17
    mattinozmattinoz Posts: 1,825member
    If the keys are all touch sensitive why have switches under them?

    Use the touch sensors to determine throttled keypress not just resting, key travel is then just for comfort and could be just simple foam block that doesn't allow anything to get in to block it. Aftermarket will in short order offer alternative foam pads for more travel experiences.

    Bingo solid state keyboard no "moving" parts.
    edited March 2020 watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 17
    mdriftmeyermdriftmeyer Posts: 7,503member
    Please stop effing with the keyboard. The glide pad is great. enhance that, but stop effing with the keyboard.
    GeorgeBMacwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 17
    mr lizardmr lizard Posts: 347member
    Bear in mind that 9to5 have a leaked version of iOS 14 which strongly suggests trackpad support. That would require a new keyboard for the iPad...
  • Reply 16 of 17
    tipootipoo Posts: 1,120member
    This sounds more interesting for the iPad Smart Keyboard than for the Mac 
    mattinozwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 17
    maybe this is how they will implement the “track pad” on the upcoming smart keyboard for ipad pro?
    watto_cobra
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