Apple tech could create invisible input areas on bezels to replace buttons

Posted:
in General Discussion edited May 19
Apple is continuing to develop technology that could allow virtually invisible input areas that can display information to a user while replacing physical buttons or controls on its products.

A figure from the patent depicting a MacBook
A figure from the patent depicting a MacBook


"Concealable input region for an electronic device," is a newly-revealed patent application describes technology that uses microperforations to sense input.

It's not the first time Apple has pursued this idea. In February 2022, the US Patent and Trademark Office actually granted Apple a patent for this idea, under the same title.

Apple says that the point of this granted patent, and of the new patent application, is to do away with the "large buttons, keys, or other mechanically-actuated structures" used to sense inputs on a device. That's because traditional input elements "may lack flexibility or adaptability and may permanently indicate the presence of the input device."

The solution is to add an input surface to a device's exterior that includes an array of microperforations. When in an active state, these microperforations can display virtual keys, buttons, or notification graphics to illuminate an input region.

The patent says that the input regions would "be visually imperceptible when not illuminated." In other words, the goal is to make these regions invisible when not in use.

An invisible input area on an Apple Pencil.
An invisible input area on an Apple Pencil.


These invisible input regions can then be further configured to receive an input, detect touch, or use other methods like optical, magnetic, and capacitance-based sensors to otherwise enable device controls. Apple says it could also be configured with a haptic portion to simulate the tactile response of a key or button.

This input layer could also incorporate a translucent layer made of "glass, ceramic, plastic, or a combination thereof." Apple says this translucent layer could be the "top case of a laptop."

Although portions of the patent's text describe an Apple Watch, there are figures in the patent that depict the microperforation technology applying to both iPhone, Apple Pencil, and MacBook devices.

Apple could use the input area to replace the physical button on an Apple Watch.
Apple could use the input area to replace the physical button on an Apple Watch.


It's worth noting that the technology appears similar to the kind seen on the HomePod, which features a top input area that lights up when Siri is activated. Apple iPhone and iPad devices have also featured capacitive button that provides a tactile response despite not actually being a button.

Apple has been granted other patents related to microperforation illumination. A patent from 2012, for example, described a system for using similar technology to create invisible device controls that can light up when activated to indicate a control area.

The system could be used in conjunction with other Apple-patented technology, such as glass keyboards on a MacBook Pro or seamless all-glass iPhones.

Apple is granted numerous patents on a weekly basis, and applies for even more. Because of that, patents are a poor predictor of the company's future plans and also give little indication of when a described technology could make it to market.

Read on AppleInsider

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 6
    Apple has all these great patents yet most never come to fruition.  Is it about Apple proving they can do it but never using it?
    It would be interesting to see how much R&D money has been spent without being used in any device Apple manufactures 
    Bottom Line : don’t expect to see to see this anytime soon or ever in an Apple device
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 6
    shaminoshamino Posts: 501member
    This looks like an incremental change to what they're already shipping.

    For example, the older MacBook Airs, with aluminum bezels around the screen, have a camera-in-use light that is almost completely invisible when it is not lit.  The LED is behind a group of microscopic perforations in the aluminum.

    I've also seen something like this on some HP laptops, to make the logo light up on the back of the display, without showing anything that looks like a lens when turned off.

    The idea of aligning micro-LEDs with these pinholes in order to provide a more robust kind of invisible display has never been done before (and hence is patent-worthy), but it still strikes me as an incremental upgrade to tech that's been around for quite a while.

    I don't think we'll ever see this on a laptop - Apple seems much more keen on simply using edge-to-edge OLED displays (with a notch, where necessary), and would therefore just use that display for the output.  But it might make sense on a device that doesn't normally have a display, like (as their example showed) an iPad pencil-like device.

    Let's just hope they don't decide to start replacing keyboards with these flat-haptic displays.  Apple's keyboards are flat enough as it is.  Going completely flat and immobile would be a disaster for anyone who knows how to touch-type.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 6
    In general, invisible buttons are a poor UI decision. The reason is that it complicates the use of a device for new users and those with cognitive disabilities. My almost 90 year old mother would be at a complete loss when told to press the home button and there is no home button. A better way to go would be to have the ability to detect when the user's fingers are close to the button (proximity sensing) and then make the button visible so they can see what they are about to tap on.
    darkvader
  • Reply 4 of 6
    auxioauxio Posts: 2,476member
    bushman4 said:
    Apple has all these great patents yet most never come to fruition.  Is it about Apple proving they can do it but never using it?
    It would be interesting to see how much R&D money has been spent without being used in any device Apple manufactures 
    Bottom Line : don’t expect to see to see this anytime soon or ever in an Apple device
    That's the reason it's called research and not product creation.  If there's no space for exploring "what if", then nothing new would ever come about.  That said, I've known my fair share of research astronauts over the years, so it's good to scrutinize the work being done every once in a while to make sure at least a certain amount is making its way into actual products.

  • Reply 5 of 6
    michelb76michelb76 Posts: 386member
    bushman4 said:
    Apple has all these great patents yet most never come to fruition.  Is it about Apple proving they can do it but never using it?
    It would be interesting to see how much R&D money has been spent without being used in any device Apple manufactures 
    Bottom Line : don’t expect to see to see this anytime soon or ever in an Apple device
    Because of America's patent system, they are just generating patents to prevent others from doing this. So I'm sure there's an R&D department dedicated to stopping competitors efforts.
  • Reply 6 of 6
    darkvaderdarkvader Posts: 844member
    In general, invisible buttons are a poor UI decision. The reason is that it complicates the use of a device for new users and those with cognitive disabilities. My almost 90 year old mother would be at a complete loss when told to press the home button and there is no home button. A better way to go would be to have the ability to detect when the user's fingers are close to the button (proximity sensing) and then make the button visible so they can see what they are about to tap on.
    Not just in general, it's ALWAYS a poor UI decision to do invisible buttons.

    And it's not just bad for people with disabilities and new users.  ALL input should be obvious to everyone.  Apple has been doing a really bad job of this lately, there are numerous non-obvious ways of interacting with iOS that, unless you happen to stumble upon them or RTFM, you will never discover.
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