Future Apple devices may have invisible buttons and sliders

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware
Apple goes far to make its devices seamless and attractive, but it wants to go further and create controls that are invisible until you need them.

Get used to more of this hiding of lights, and controls, when not in use.
Get used to more of this hiding of lights, and controls, when not in use.


Apple already goes to thoroughly unreasonable, impractical lengths to hide elements of devices that other manufacturers wouldn't even think of. Just look at the light that tells you a Mac mini is on.

If that device isn't on, there's no light. That's not to say the light is switched off, that it's blank, but rather that it is vanished.

You can call it over-engineering and you can call it unnecessary, but it's Apple's acute attention to detail -- and the company wants to do more of it.

"Disappearing Button or Slider," is a newly-revealed patent application that shows Apple wants to make controls as invisible as lights, when that's the right thing to do.

"In the world of consumer devices, and particularly consumer electronics, there is an ever-present demand for improved appearance, improved functionality, and improved aesthetics," says Apple. "Industrial design has become a highly skilled profession that focuses on fulfilling this need for enhanced consumer product appearance, functionality, and aesthetics."

"One area that receives attention for improvement, particularly in consumer electronics, is user input and interface," it continues. Apple then lists common features from buttons to click wheels, and touch screens to trackpads.

"One challenge with these known input devices is that they may detract from the aesthetics of the device by interrupting the continuity of the device housing," says the patent application. "To illustrate, compare a mobile phone having a traditional key pad with the iPhone..."

Fortunately not a real future Apple product. But the
Fortunately not a real future Apple product. But the "invisible" control on the top is coming.


"The iPhone has a flat touch-sensitive screen which presents a striking, seamless design, while the traditional mobile phone presents a cluttered array of keys and buttons," continues Apple.

This patent application is quite blatant about how it's chiefly to do with the look of something rather than its function, but it also makes a case for the iPhone-like design as being more practical.

"Besides the obvious aesthetic advantages of having a seamless design, a seamless design may have improved functionality and/or durability," it says. "For example, a traditional mechanical key pad can wear out over time and/or be ruined by dirt or moisture entering into the openings in the device housing. These openings are necessary to accommodate the traditional keys and buttons."

So the purpose of this patent application is to establish methods of repeating the Mac light trick, just with controls or any kind of input device. Apple proposes that some input devices could use a "deflection based capacitive sensing" to work.

"Deflection of a metal frame of the input device causes a change in capacitance that is used to control a function of an electrical device," it explains. "The input device appears invisible because it is made of the same material as the housing it is contained in. Invisible backlit holes may make the input selectively visible or invisible to the user."

Whatever device this may be used for, the principle is that there be a "capacitor reference" on an "inner surface," which features invisible holes.

"When an object is placed on the frame in the area of the invisible holes and pressure is applied, the frame deforms," says Apple. "This deformation causes a change in capacitance between the capacitive reference and the capacitor plate. The capacitor sensor detects this change and converts it to an electrical signal."

Once you can create an electrical signal, the device's hardware and software can use that to perform any required action. There have to be practical limits to this, though, as it's unlikely Apple thinks it can make an entire keyboard out of invisible keys.

Detail from the patent showing one (of many) ways to determine when an invisible control has been pressed
Detail from the patent showing one (of many) ways to determine when an invisible control has been pressed


Yet it could have an invisible on/off switch, for instance, to go with the Mac's invisible on/off light. It could add a slider control to a HomePod mini.

Apple could add invisible controls to anything -- so long as it's clear to the user where they are. It's good to have an invisible control that doesn't interrupt or detract from what a device is doing.

It's somewhat less good when the volume is hurting your ears and you cannot see where to turn the thing down.

"Thus, the need exists for commercially feasible device display systems with improved aesthetics that unobtrusively furnish information as appropriate, but otherwise do not distract or detract from the user's experience or the device's performance," says Apple. "Preferably, selected elements of such display systems would additionally become invisible in their off states."

This patent application is credited to Omar S. Leung, and David T. Amm. Both already hold a related patent regarding capacitive sensing.




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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 14
    Bring back the light to all Macs, not just the Mini & Mac Pro. Why did they take them away in the first place??
    elijahg
  • Reply 2 of 14
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,221member
    Sounds like a really bad idea to me. These are just patents for the sake of not letting anyone else use the idea, not that anyone would in this instance. Also any capacitive button can already be invisible, what's new or novel about this? 
  • Reply 3 of 14
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,221member
    Bring back the light to all Macs, not just the Mini & Mac Pro. Why did they take them away in the first place??
    I can sort of understand on Macbooks as the power usage could drain the battery (though modern LEDs use ~1mA and are super bright), but on the iMacs it's stupid not to have one. They went from the massive bright white LED that would illuminate a room on the white iMacs to nothing on the aluminium ones, and half the time you don't know if it's on or not, as the POST sound isn't instant.
  • Reply 4 of 14
    OMG
    hide and seek software is bad enough!
    hide and seek hardware?! Please.
    stop this crap.
    muthuk_vanalingambaconstangDogperson
  • Reply 5 of 14
    BeatsBeats Posts: 2,443member
    Don’t forget the Apple TV light. Apple TV is just a beautiful piece of hardware.

    I can see this being used on Apple Glasses, Watch, Headphones and other hardware besides iPhone.

    elijahg said:
    Sounds like a really bad idea to me. These are just patents for the sake of not letting anyone else use the idea, not that anyone would in this instance. Also any capacitive button can already be invisible, what's new or novel about this? 

    This idea is great for Glasses and newer tech that would look unappealing with clunky buttons exposed. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 14
    Hank2.0Hank2.0 Posts: 118member
    It is my experience that Apple is better at adding clever new features than informing the user where these new functions are and how they work. Thank goodness there is YouTube.
    baconstangmariowincobikerdudebeowulfschmidt
  • Reply 7 of 14
    henrybayhenrybay Posts: 137member
    What’s wrong with buttons? People love them. I thought Apple had moved beyond the hyper-minimalist approach to design that led to debacles like the butterfly keyboard. Has Jony Ive returned through the back door? 
    baconstangDogperson
  • Reply 8 of 14
    mattinozmattinoz Posts: 1,602member
    I wonder how long till the volume buttons on the iPhone turn it a slider like this. Would make sense now the interface is the skinny feedback bar.
    Hard push could bring up the wider bar even allow switching between different volume controls.

    On the watch Apple might even be able to use existing holes for speaker and mic to create a second slide control on the other face.

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 14
    What learning curve?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 14
    Shades of android. I tried to use one yesterday and there is NO HOME BUTTON. Just an insignificant small square among other symbols in the bottom row. Had to be pointed out to me. (Miserable to use.  Set search engine to Bing and it kept reverting to google) Give me an effing sliderphone
    edited April 15 watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 14
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 6,830member
    elijahg said:
    Sounds like a really bad idea to me. These are just patents for the sake of not letting anyone else use the idea, not that anyone would in this instance. Also any capacitive button can already be invisible, what's new or novel about this? 
    The purpose of the patent is to prevent Apple being sued if they want to use it in the future. Now they have prior art. 

    Has Apple sued anyone over a patent since Samsung?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 14
    michelb76michelb76 Posts: 259member
    Now apply this attention to detail to all Apple software please.
  • Reply 13 of 14
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,699member
    I think someone already beat Apple to the punch on this. I stayed at a hotel in Zurich that had elevators with practically invisible controls. The inside of the elevator was glossy white glass everywhere, or at least it was very very close to white. The elevator controls were white illuminated numbers behind the shiny walls, totally flush, touch sensitive controls, ever so slightly whiter than the walls. The controls were on the side wall, not flanking the doors. I got in the elevator and immediately had no idea where the controls were. The lack of contrast and unusual placement rendered the controls practically invisible. Fortunately, the front desk receptionist came to my rescue and pointed out where the controls were, right there where there was a greasy splotch of fingerprints on the shiny wall, close to where someone has pasted a paper label that said "Priority Floor." Holding my finger over a white number switched it to a barely discernible pale orchard color, no haptic feedback at all, and in typical Euro fashion the floor numbers were zero based. No open door or close door controls, just six barely discernible numbers, greasy fingerprints, and a paper label for the Priority Floor, whatever that was.

    Long story short, this was a clear example of a designer trying to express a design sensibility that existed only in the mind of the designer and one that bore no consideration for the users who would be saddled with trying to figure out WTF the designer was thinking. Designers who feel compelled to address simple human interaction tasks in such an arcane way should express themselves in other ways, like painting, sculpture, performance art, or making dog clothing. Not elevator controls, not appliances, and not ever automobile dashboards or airplane cockpits.

    If I am ever saddled with "invisible controls" on future Apple products at least I am prepared with a strategy. Number one, look for the greasy fingerprint smears to locate the location of the invisible controls. Number two, get out the trusty P-Touch machine and affix labels to the places on the product where Apple forgot to put them.   
     
    muthuk_vanalingammariowincoMplsP
  • Reply 14 of 14
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,156member
    Please, no! 
    Invisible lights are one thing, but unlike lights, buttons are meant to be interacted with by the user. Concealing them only leads to confusion as @dewme experienced. Lack of feedback is another potential issue. We have a Bluetooth speaker at work with a ‘slide’ control on the side that is touch sensitive and gives no feedback and it’s incredibly annoying to use. 

    If Apple should use this idea they’d better make the controls very clear Android give good tactile feedback. 
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