Apple updated its keyboard in the release of the MacBook, building a keyboard that used a “butterfly mechanism” to enable the keys to be much thinner and lighter.
It seems, however, that Apple isn’t done changing the design of the keyboard, having filed a patent for a switch-less Force Touch keyboard for the Mac.
Putting a keyboard built around Force Touch on a Mac would not only drastically cut down on key height by removing the physical switches in a key, but it could also seriously expand a device’s utility.
The patent itself is patent No. 9,178,509 for an “Ultra low travel keyboard,” which basically described the operating principles behind a QWERTY keyboard that doesn’t use switches and is reminiscent of the Force Touch trackpads found on the MacBook. The switch is a component in a keyboard that forces manufacturers to keep their computers a certain thickness, so removing the switches entirely would enable Apple to create far thinner computers than they have already managed to do.
The new butterfly mechanism on the MacBook is essentially a modified scissor switch that is found nestled under hollow key caps. While the new patent might offer a design that is reminiscent of current keyboards, the actual technology behind it would replace the mechanical switches with a set of sensors and supporting circuits for those sensors.
In theory, the system would operate very similarly to the Force Touch trackpad, but on a more widespread scale. Each key would have its own sensor package, which would be configured to measure how much downward pressure is being enforced. Integrated actuators would generate haptic feedback, making the keyboard feel more real.
A number of different components could be used to make the keyboard feel like a mechanical one, and the sensors would essentially be able to detect how much modulated force is being applied, and send that information to the processor. What this means is that keys could be used to control much more than just letters being typed. For example, if the keyboard was used in gaming, pressing down the key could convey one command, while pressing down even harder could convey another command. This could completely revolutionize how tech companies treat keyboards, enabling operating systems to integrate many more commands into how they work.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not Apple will actually roll out a keyboard based on the new patent. Tech companies like Apple file patents regularly, and that certainly doesn’t mean that the company is going to implement it, just that it has had the idea to do so. That being said, each MacBook generation seems to come with a thinner and thinner body, and a keyboard design that doesn’t use switches would go a long way in helping with Apple’s mission to make its computers thinner.
Apple’s Force Touch has been slowly making its way into Apple’s entire product line. The technology was first introduced in the trackpad of the new MacBook, enabling users to change their input based on how how hard they pressed down on the trackpad. Next, it featured in other MacBook models after finding its way into the iPhone under the branding of 3D Touch.
Using 3D Touch, users have access to a much wider variety of input controls, with the most obvious use of 3D Touch being to access app features straight from the app icon on the home page. In fact, 3D Touch is largely expected to revolutionize the smartphone industry, with some smartphone manufacturers having already announced their own versions of 3D Touch technology. Last but not least, a standalone Force Touch trackpad was released.
It would certainly be interesting to see how Apple implements Force Touch to make for a new keyboard experience. What will be even more interesting is seeing how the company intends on making the keyboard feel realistic despite not having actual mechanical parts. While a haptic feedback engine could help, it won’t necessarily give it the same feel as pressing down on a real key. Not only that, but implementing so many sensors and parts into a keyboard is sure to be pricey, and it’s unclear exactly how Apple would ensure that prices don’t skyrocket even higher than they already have.