A new Apple patent application, released today, explains what appears to be the end goal of Apple for MacBooks: a screen-based keyboard with a realistic look and feel that still enables the typing by touch.
Over the years, Apple has gradually stepped away from physical keys and buttons. We saw the iPhone’s mechanical home button replaced by a solid-state one, a haptic motor simulating a tap before it was replaced by a screen swipe itself.
Apple started the process with MacBooks as well.
The first move was to replace the MacBook Pro mechanical trackpad with a Force Touch model that replicated clicks using haptic motors. That was in 2015.
A year ago, the 2016 MacBook Pro replaced physical function keys with the Touch Bar, suggesting that Apple’s move to flatter fewer travel keyboards is all part of the process of preparing us for a future screen-based keyboard.
Haptic motors are already very active when simulating a simple button click Yes, many owners of the MacBook Pro models for iPhone 7 and 2015 and later are completely unaware of the update.
But it’s a whole new level to build a workable screen-based keyboard. Specifically for touch styles, people need to be able to feel the keys physically. Not only the edges of them, but where the cores are. A simple flat keyboard with haptic motors for simulating a keypress doesn’t get close to that anywhere.
Apple patents for keys based on the screen
Apple has been working for some time on more sophisticated keyboard software focused on the screen For example, one solution was defined by a patent early last year: a flexible screen that could physically depress while typing, coupled with an electrostatic charge to mimic a key’s edge feel.
Today’s patent application goes further, replacing a fully simulated movement for a deformable screen. The language of the patent is even denser than normal, but it seems to explain using a mix of haptic motors and electrostatic charging not only to provide a realistic simulation of key edges and movement, but even to focus the fingers on the keys.
In other words, the core of these digital keys could still be reached by our fingertips because the electrostatic charge would make it feel like the keys had a concave shape.
Couple this with high-quality 3D graphics, and you might have a screen-based keyboard that looks and feels like a mechanical keyboard. Especially if the main presence changes depending on the viewing angle, ambient light, and so on using an anisotropic approach to the environment.
The illustrations used in the patent depict an iPad-like device suggesting that before the more revolutionary move of a screen-based keyboard on MacBooks, Apple could incorporate the technology there. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Apple frequently uses standard photos to illustrate an idea, which may tell us nothing about the intended application.
We must also add our normal patent disclaimer: Apple patents all kinds of things that never become products. Yet this seems to be the direction the company is heading in, so personally, I’d say it’s a case of when and not if.