Mac users everywhere rejoiced when Apple dumped their butterfly keyboard design for a tried and true scissor switch mechanism last year. Now the keyboards on newer Macs, as well as the Magic Keyboard for the iPads Pro and Air, have the latest and greatest design and Apple fans have made it very clear that they’re in favor of the switch.
While I’m not eager to see Apple fooling around with their key mechanisms again anytime soon, I am intrigued by the possibilities that may be in store for the keys themselves based on a patent they were awarded today.
According to coverage from Patently Apple, the new patent covers keyboard keys with individual displays that can change the letter or symbol that the key displays.
It may be desirable to reconfigure keyboards dynamically to accommodate input for different languages, to temporarily convert a standard keyboard into a gaming keyboard in which keys correspond to particular in-game actions, or to otherwise modify the behavior associated with pressing the keys in the keyboard.
This design could open up all sorts of interesting possibilities. A couple of obvious ones are listed in the quote above, but there are many more where they came from. Remember the days when complex apps would come with keyboard overlays to help you remember all of the keyboard functions and combinations? What if any app could alter the displays of the keys to show you those special functions? That could really speed up the process of becoming proficient with pro software such as AutoCAD. It also does away with the need to keep up with an overlay.
How about the possibilities of individual customization? Any user could take advantage and alter a few of the keys as they see fit. Sure, there are ways to do this now, but you have to remember how you set things up in the future. With an adaptable keyboard, you could not only change the functions of keys, but also change the exterior display of said keys to match their new assignments. That’s pretty compelling.
What if you have particular needs that change, depending on the task? The ability to change a key for a particular task and then revert to a standard layout or other custom layouts is already useful. Making the displays of the keys come along for the ride without some kind of printed cover sounds almost like magic.
I was also intrigued by the possibilities of previous Apple patents that covered Macs or iPad Keyboard Cases with virtual keyboards equipped with haptic feedback. Basically a second screen with keys displayed that could be easily repurposed for all kinds of things. While this would provide an even more customizable experience, not even Apple’s very impressive Taptic Engine haptic tech could fully simulate the feel of a great hardware keyboard. This new patent would give most users most of the extra flexibility they want without the potential pitfalls of going all glass under the fingers.
Here’s where we get to the disclaimer part. There is absolutely no guarantee that any Apple patent will find its way into a shipping product or onto store shelves. In fact, more often than not, they don’t. However, these patent filings are an interesting window into things that Apple designers and engineers are looking at. Based on the quality of the new Magic Keyboards and the fact that there have been so many keyboard-related patents over the last few years, it’s safe to say this has been and continues to be a major area of interest of the company.
Considering that the keyboard is the longest running and at worst the second most used interface in computing, Apple is spending its time and energy wisely. I do hope we see this idea of reconfigurable keys with individual displays make its way to the Mac at some point, because it really could breath a lot of fresh air into a tried and true, but somewhat stale method of input. Even better, I hope this one also trickles down to the iPad’s Magic Keyboard, as well. I think the combo of a touchscreen, Apple Pencil input, and a completely customizable keyboard could really be something.
I won’t be holding my breath, but I will bookmark this one to see if any supply chain rumors point this direction in the future.