Hardware

Haptic feedback touchpads and ultra-thin keyboards revealed in Apple patent applications

Apple patent applications reveal two features of future iPads, iPhones, and Macs--haptic feedback interfaces and ultra-thin keyboards.

According to two U.S. patent applications, Apple wants to improve the tactile interface of iPads, iPhones, and Macs.

First, the "Single Support Level Keyboard Mechanism" (US Patent Application Publication US 2012/0043191 A1) describes a way to create ultra-thin keyboards. Apple's new keyboard would use a "low-travel" level-based mechanism instead of the standard scissor-switch found under the keys of many standard keyboards.

According to the patent:

"The keyboard includes a key cap that can be formed of a variety of materials in the form of a flat slab. The key cap is attached to one end of a support lever that supports it from underneath. ... The portion of the support lever that is attached to the key cap is positioned over a metal dome that can be deformed to activate the switch circuitry of the membrane on printed circuit board underneath the dome."

It's unclear from the patent exactly how much thinner the new keyboard would be compared to current designs. But, when you're building an ultra-thin notebook, like Apple's MacBook Air, every millimeter counts.

The technology described in the second patent is even more interesting. The "Touch-based User Interface with Haptic Feedback" (US Patent Application Publication US 2012/0068957 A1) would give users a sensation of surface texture as the moved their fingers across an input surface, such as an iPad screen or MacBook Pro touchpad.

Apple isn't the first company to incorporate haptic feedback into a smartphone. The BlackBerry Storm and Samsung Omnia both had a haptic feedback mechanism, but the technology behind Apple's patent appears completely different.

By placing a layer of piezoelectric actuators within a display or trackpad, Apple would give users the ability to "feel" the buttons or icon shown on the device's screen. Clicking an icon could result in a "vibration or other motion".

There were rumors that the 2012 iPad would contain Senseg's E-Sense haptic display technology. But, it was not to be. Perhaps Apple's new technology will make its debut in the iPhone 5?

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

6 comments
boomchuck1
boomchuck1

As long as they are just patenting a mechanism for doing this then what is the big issue. Now, if they claim they are reinventing the haptic feedback and want to sue everybody else that already has this, like my Android phone from Samsung, then that is an issue. Not like haptic feedback is a new idea.

rfolden
rfolden

in electric musical instrument keys; science kits as mentioned above, numerous switches in stereo components such as receivers work this way. Also the fundamental design of a spst relay. Heck, the actuator switches for the overhead light in your car work this way. FAIL!

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

... I might point out that this system has not been used in any kind of computer keyboard or even typewriter keyboard since the age of old-style telegraphy, so this really is different enough to at least file for a patent.

Dr. Solar
Dr. Solar

Apple has just patented the telegraph key!

jevans4949
jevans4949

Or maybe they're planning to sue the pants off every science kit manufacturer in the world.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

The actuator switches for the mirror (overhead) light in your car uses a push-on/push-off switch, usually placed near the center of the switch cover. The spst relay is electromagnetic, not manual so is invalid in this usage. the switches in your stereo receiver are almost always either capacitive touch or again push-on/push-off and any momentary contact switches are not on an extended arm such as Apple's patent filing uses. Even electric musical instruments use a spring on the arm separate from the key itself in almost every case. The closest real comparison you might suggest for this is the modern "micro-switch" which uses a similar arm, but puts the switch near the fulcrum rather than out at the tip. Dr. Solar's description is the only similar switch in form factor and while the telegraph key is quite old in actual use, it has never been miniaturized and placed in any kind of keyboard of this sort. I'm not saying that Apple should be given this patent, but considering the different use to which the switch style is placed, it's different enough from telegraph keys to earn it.

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