Apple may not use mechanical switches in a future MacBook keyboard at all

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware
Future keyboards could use light to determine how far a key is pressed, a design that could replace the switches in a traditional mechanical keyboard with a system that takes up less space and potentially being capable of more presses than existing versions.




The concept of the keyboard has been around for quite some time, and is a well-used peripheral for computing devices around the world. While there have been some refinements to the item, such as by moving from the mechanical keyboard switch to notebook-style chiclet keyboards, the fundamental concepts of how the keyboard works hasn't really changed.

In practically all physical keyboards, the core idea is that some sort of actuation is performed with a key press, be it within a keyboard switch or a thin membrane-style keyboard. Contacts are connected, sending a specific signal to the host device.

However, Apple suggests physically making a connection within the switch isn't necessary for a keyboard, and proposes the use of light instead. In the patent published by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday titled "Optical Keyboard," Apple suggests just that.

Instead of an electrical connection being made by the physical motion of the keyboard, Apple proposes a system of light emitters and sensors, as well as elements on the underside of the key that can interfere with the passage of light. By pressing the key, the under-key element changes the passage of light, which can be measured and used to determine an input from a particular key.

An example of a key with an opaque undercarriage impeding the progress of light
An example of a key with an opaque undercarriage impeding the progress of light


As well as using opaque elements, the key can be made of a partially transparent material which emits its own light. Again, light sensors could be configured to detect changes in light levels depending on the motion of the key, again registering specific inputs depending on the key that moves.

The key could include a leg structure that buckles, giving users the feel of the actuation of a normal keyboard, as well as giving different levels of tactile feedback based on how much they press down on the keys. A dome could also be used to support the keycap, while the light could be fed into a light pipe that runs underneath it, accomplishing a similar feat while potentially making the key cap replaceable.

For each press, the light sensor detects the changes from a maximum amount of light emitted at the uncompressed position of the keycap to an amount of light associated with the fully-compressed position. It is plausible that a point between the two can be set as the "actuation" point to register the key press, one that could potentially be customized to require lighter or firmer presses, and therefore more key travel.

Under-key domes could have light pipes and translucent elements to emit light.
Under-key domes could have light pipes and translucent elements to emit light.


As light is being fed into the key or into a light pipe, this plausibly could be used as part of a backlight system for a keyboard, eliminating the need for a separate illumination system for that purpose.

Apple files numerous patent applications with the USPTO on a weekly basis, but while the filings indicate areas of interest for the company's research and development efforts, it isn't a guarantee that the ideas will make their way into a future product or service.

The replacement of the keyboard mechanism has been explored before by Apple, such as in the 2016 patent application for "Depressible keys with decoupled electrical and mechanical functionality." In that patent, Apple proposes the use of light emitters and detectors to measure light reflected from the back of the key, enabling it to determine how far it travelled in a press.

At the same time, the patent application proposed decoupling the mechanical and tactile functionality from the press-detection element, using structures capable of elastic deformation, and with the option for users to adjust the feel of key movement on the fly.

Apple has also explored other keyboard concepts, including the use of glass panel keyboards with force detection for each key, touch sensitive keys, and replacing the keyboard section of a MacBook with a touchscreen.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 54
    A fine example off how crazy and complex the Ict world is!
    seems to me that HP and other PC giants don’t have these keyboard issues....
    williamlondonchemengin1
  • Reply 2 of 54
    "The concept of the keyboard has been around for quite some time ..."

    *falls from chair*
    Solirevenant
  • Reply 3 of 54
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 7,453member
    elfig2012 said:
    A fine example off how crazy and complex the Ict world is!
    seems to me that HP and other PC giants don’t have these keyboard issues....
    Oh yes they do. Take a look at any PC manufacturer’s support forums. As for the switchless keyboards those have been around for decades on musical keyboards with velocity sensitive MIDI keys. The pipe organ industry (which I am involved with) switched to contactless keyboards years ago, using light or magnetism (LDRs or MOSFETs) to turn a transistor on or off and thereby act as the switch. These keyboards are designed to last for decades without maintenance.
    edited August 27 SoliEric_WVGGelfig2012chiarepressthisn2itivguystompyAppleExposedJWSCravnorodom
  • Reply 4 of 54
    hexclockhexclock Posts: 594member
    "The concept of the keyboard has been around for quite some time ..."

    *falls from chair*
    Yes, I believe we have moved well beyond the conceptual stage. 
    king editor the grateStrangeDaysdysamoria
  • Reply 5 of 54
    hmlongcohmlongco Posts: 187member
    "The concept of the keyboard has been around for quite some time ..."

    *falls from chair*
    Hey, the keyboard "concept" may well be older than the author of the article....
    king editor the grateStrangeDays
  • Reply 6 of 54
    This is utterly brilliant.

    All that talk about the 16" MBP going back to scissor keys… since when has Apple ever gone backward on anything? Maybe they'll re-introduce SCSI ports on the new Mac Pro while they're at it. No, whatever sort of key mechanism the next Apple laptop has, it won't be "the old one."

    The iPhone 7 haptic-feedback home button and the Macbook haptic trackpad button have been resounding successes. Nobody wants a purely haptic keyboard; an approach like this is very best-of-both-worlds. I just fear that patents like this are usually filed years before actual devices make it to market, so we'll have to file this one away in the "someday/who-knows" bin.
    elfig2012AppleExposedcornchip
  • Reply 7 of 54
    elfig2012 said: seems to me that HP and other PC giants don’t have these keyboard issues....
    It only seems that way if you don't do an Google search for 'laptop stuck keys'. The first thing that comes up is an HP video about taking apart your keyboard and cleaning out the dust/crumbs etc.  
    cornchip
  • Reply 8 of 54
    CelTanCelTan Posts: 44member
    Did razr not already present and sell a keyboard that uses light?
  • Reply 9 of 54
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 7,453member
    The real problem is the Mavis Beacon touch typists who will never be satisfied with any keyboard other than the traditional typewriter key look and feel. Andy Ihnatko on MacBreak Weekly is always bitching about keyboards on laptops and tablets.
    monstrosity
  • Reply 10 of 54
    Eric_WVGG said:
    All that talk about the 16" MBP going back to scissor keys… since when has Apple ever gone backward on anything?
    Well, when they switched to the butterfly mechanism, they went backward on reliability. So there's that.
    edited August 27 AppleExposeddysamoria
  • Reply 11 of 54
    elfig2012 said: seems to me that HP and other PC giants don’t have these keyboard issues....
    It only seems that way if you don't do an Google search for 'laptop stuck keys'. The first thing that comes up is an HP video about taking apart your keyboard and cleaning out the dust/crumbs etc.  
    At least there you can take it apart and clean it. With Apple you have to get the entire to part of the bottom case replaced. 
    elfig2012dysamoriaviclauyyc
  • Reply 12 of 54
    thttht Posts: 3,308member
    I was thinking of something totally different for a light based keyboard. ;) With this one, people can say their keyboards have lasers!

    Headline is clickbait. The patent is using switches, it is what causes the buckling action, the feel of a keyboard. It is just replacing the mechanism for detecting a key press with a laser or light system instead of electrical contacts. 


  • Reply 13 of 54
    eightzeroeightzero Posts: 2,503member
    Takes me back to that 60 second part of Steve's original iPhone reveal when he talked about an input device for it. Stylus? no. Your finger, multitouch, works like magic! 

    And then I remember all the rage over voice dictation. Write a document by using your voice! I was in fact required to use a Dictaphone by an employer in the very late 1990s...and I just couldn't do it. I have to see the words, so hardwired was my training and learning. I never took a typing class, something generally only offered to girls (and yes, I use that word specifically because of the time period involved, and the intended vocational skill that was intended) so I am self taught, and have used it exclusively for my entire adult life. To me, a keyboard is perhaps the most personal computing device in my life. I can adapt pretty quickly, but others are quite picky (perhaps the understatement of the day...)

    Nice article by AI. 
    FileMakerFellerradarthekat
  • Reply 14 of 54
    The way Apple has nailed the trackpad by way of force touch is nothing short of magical when you use it, and absolutely earns it’s name as the Magic Trackpad. 

    Basic idea here is that Apple would have the same kind of success with a keyboard, which would be an unbelievable outstanding achievement.
    chia
  • Reply 15 of 54
    This invention isn't novel. Over twenty years ago I read that they already use this for some pay-phones in Israel because of the public's desire to do no "work" on the Sabbath, and the creation of an electrical current was considered "work," (by both the buttons and the receiver in its cradle) so by inventing shadow-triggered buttons they got more people to pay money to make phone calls on the Sabbath. The breaking of a light beam is not considered "work" but the "absence of work," like casting a shadow isn't "work." Whereas closing/creating an electrical circuit by creating contact between two wires is considered work. But modifying a property (current, voltage, frequency, capacitance) of an existing circuit is considered permissible by the strictest rules, which is usually why a speaker device is considered permissible, if it's left on.

    I'm guessing that the HomePod would be able to make a call without violating the strictest rules, since the current is running continuously, as far as I know. But HomePods aren't portable. I'm also guessing that a touch screen (or "Hey Siri") on an iPhone (or Apple Watch) would also qualify as being work-free.

    However don't be so sure of last my conclusions. The orientation sensors inside an iPhone use microscopic mechanical/moving parts. As does the Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) in any smartphone. Yes, there's an actual physical motor that controls moving parts. If an electrical circuit is created by the OIS system, that would be a violation of strict Sabbath rules. Or if there's a circuit being created by the moving parts in the orientation chips in a smartphone, that would also violate the rules. I've tried googling how these orientation sensors work, but was unable to find much information as their internal mechanisms are considered trade secrets. So I'm unsure if they close an electrical circuit. The motor in the OIS might create such a circuit, but I had trouble finding that out too.

    But in relation to this article, I would expect that this new keyboard technology would be Sabbath-friendly. However I'm not sure if there are other moving parts in a laptop. Most laptops probably contain fans which are physical devices activated by the closing of a circuit. And don't forget the Apple TV 4K and Time Capsule and Airport Extreme which also have fans.
  • Reply 16 of 54
    The technology used in a keyboard is transparent to the person typing. No matter their typing skills. If the experience is reliable there is no problem. But come on Apple engineers. The World does not need a razzle dazzle keyboard. There are better ways to utilize your talents. Well okay. If there is a way to prevent potato chip crumbs from interfering with a person’s work I guess it is a good thing.
    edited August 27 viclauyyc
  • Reply 17 of 54
    AppleishAppleish Posts: 162member
    My nearly three year old Touch Bar MBP with the "dreaded keyboard" that I use 6-12 hours a day, still zero problems. 

    Nobody I know in my creative circles have any issues either. 90% of the complaining I see about this online is from Marco Arment, who started whining about this keyboard from day one, before the "failures," and as far as I know has never had the issue.

    And yet Apple has a repair program, so somebody must have problems. Weird I don't see this in the real world.
    edited August 27 tht
  • Reply 18 of 54
    80s_Apple_Guy said: At least there you can take it apart and clean it. With Apple you have to get the entire to part of the bottom case replaced. 
    You don't think there are do-it-yourself videos on removing individual MBP keys for cleaning? Think again. There's tons of them. That HP video was specifically intended for people who were no longer covered by warranty. They recommend taking the laptop in for professional service if it's still under warranty. That's no different than Apple. 
    radarthekatMplsP
  • Reply 19 of 54
    docno42docno42 Posts: 3,337member
    Good grief, I hope they keep the experimentation to desktop keyboards and fall back the laptops to the tried, true and RELIABLE designs.  I'd like to get a new Mac laptop sometime in the near future but I am not touching one of those butterfly abominations. 
    MisterKitanantksundaram80s_Apple_Guyirelanddysamoria
  • Reply 20 of 54
    The last optical keyboard I remember hearing about was all the way back in 1983, and it was a music keyboard... Sequential Circuits's Prophet T8.  So this is not entirely unheard of.

    I do wonder how this could be any more impervious to dust than current tech.
    dysamoria
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