Late last week the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that revealed yet another take on a possible future virtual keyboard for the iMac and other devices. Apple's first major patent concerning larger virtual keyboards surfaced in 2009. Then in 2011a wave of major virtual keyboard patents surfaced that illustrated the depth of Apple's research in this area. In early January Patently Apple posted a report titled "Apple gets closer to a Virtual Keyboard for the iMac," and later that month we posted a second report titled "Apple Pushes Research into Motion Keyboards for MacBooks." In May, Apple disclosed the invention of an "Advanced Air Feedback System" and last week Apple revealed their fifth major effort into keyless keyboards by disclosing their new piezo-based acoustic and capacitive detection system which includes a very cool glass based keyboard concept that may be a winner.
The General Problem to Solve
Apple lays out the general problem to solve by stating that in general, touch-sensitive surface or related input devices may be less reliable in determining a pressed command or intended input when compared with a traditional mechanical keyboard. For example, some touch screens often require that a user tap on the screen several times before detecting the command. Further, touch-sensitive surface input devices often fail to distinguish between when a user is merely resting on the surface of the device or actively selecting a letter or other input.
Apple's Ongoing Search for the Perfect Flat Surface Keyboard
Apple's solution overview begins by stating that in some instances, an input device for a computing system made of mechanical buttons or switches may not be feasible. For example, it may be useful to provide an input device that is flat and has few to no moving pieces, as this may yield a more robust product. One such device is a touch-based input device for a computing system. The descriptions of the embodiments in Apple's patent application are primarily in relation to a flat surface keyboard – though not limited to such.
One embodiment of the present invention may take the form of a flat surface input device with a keyboard interface. Apple's patent FIG. 2 shown below illustrates a top view of a flat-surface keyboard input device utilizing acoustic pulse recognition to detect a tap on the surface of the keyboard.
Machine Stamped or Micro-perforated Keys
A flat surface keyboard of the present invention may take the form of at least one input surface (202) with some type of indicator on the surface for each of the input characters of the keyboard. The input surface may be constructed from any solid material, such as metal, glass, plastic, and so on. In a metal or plastic embodiment, the keys may be machined, stamped or micro-perforated into the input surface such that a user may press or tap on a key to provide a corresponding input to the computing system.
Glass Keyboard with Graphics on a Display Screen Below
In a glass embodiment, the keys may be painted on the surface or provided as graphics on a display screen located below the glass surface. The flat surface keyboard includes an indication of a standard computer keyboard layout including space bar, enter and function keys and so on.
Further, the flat surface keyboard may also include a haptic or tactile feedback mechanism that is activated when the user presses or taps on a key of the keyboard. In general, the haptic response may provide a force, vibration and/or motion to the user's fingers or hands in response to the user pressing on the keyboard surface.
Acoustic Pulse Recognition
Acoustic pulse recognition based flat keyboards could be used with computers such as the iMac but could also be implemented with in-vehicle systems, other iOS devices or devices relating to medical and financial fields.
While the flat keyboard may provide a haptic response to a user input, the flat surface keyboard typically does not include mechanical switches or buttons to detect the pressing of a key. Instead, the flat surface keyboard may include one or more sensors to detect when and where a user taps the keyboard during operation of the input device.
In one embodiment, one or more piezo-electric sensors may be utilized to detect and record an acoustic pulse created when the user taps on the keyboard. Apple's patent FIG. 3 noted above depicts a cross-sectional view of the flat-surface keyboard device utilizing acoustic pulse recognition to detect a tap on the keyboard of FIG. 2.
In the example shown in FIG. 3, two piezo-electric ("piezo") sensors 310, 312 are arranged within the keyboard structure with one on the left sidewall of the keyboard structure and the other on the right sidewall of the structure. The piezo sensors are situated to receive an acoustic pulse created when the user taps a segment or segments of the top surface of the keyboard.
Apple's patent FIG. 3A depicts a cross-sectional top view of the keyboard of FIG. 3 along line "BB" that utilizes three piezo sensors 310-314 to detect an acoustic pulse recognition of a tap on the keyboard surface. During operation, a user taps on the surface of the flat keyboard defined by the keyboard outline. For example, the user may tap on the top surface of the flat keyboard (302) that includes an indication of the letter "H". When tapped, one or more acoustic pulses 304, 306 propagates away from and along the keyboard's top surface.
Other Sensors Could Be Utilized
While the embodiments described herein and throughout discuss piezo-electric sensors to detect the acoustic pulse resulting from a tap on the input device, it should be appreciated that the embodiments discussed may include any type of sensor that detects an acoustic signal. For example, flat keyboards may incorporate one or more microphones to detect the acoustic signal. In other embodiments, a seismometer or an accelerometer may also be used to detect the acoustic pulse created by a tap on the flat keyboard.
Apple also describes the combination of sensors used to perform normal keyboard functions like when you're capitalizing a letter. To match this keyboard function on a flat keyboard, Apple states that they'll combine piezo and capacitive sensors. This combination also helps to distinguish between an accidental touch of the keyboard surface and a deliberate one.
Flat Keyboard with LED lighting
Of course in poor lighting, a flat keyboard could be a bit of a problem when searching for a key and so Apple notes that proximity sensors positioned on the keyboard could include one or more photosensors located along the edge of the keyboard. Corresponding infrared light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are oriented to create a grid on the keyboard and such that the photosensors receive the light projected from the LEDs.
Apple's patent application 20110175813 was originally filed in Q1 2010 by inventors Mushtaq Sarwar, Omar Leung, Aleksandar Pance, Brett Bilbrey and Andrew Richardson.
Other Virtual Keyboard Patent Applications
Three other patent applications that surfaced last week (20110175826, 20110179372 and 20110179373) cover the technology that is currently used in Apple's virtual keyboard for iOS devices. Bradford Moore, who was listed as inventor on all of these new patents, also worked on other patent relating to virtual keyboards in 2010. One of the screenshots of interest illustrates Apple considering the inclusion of another virtual keyboard-layer for emoticons. I'm sure for patent sleuths there's still more to discover if this happens to be a topic of interest.
Notice: Patently Apple presents a detailed summary of patent applications with associated graphics for journalistic news purposes as each such patent application is revealed by the U.S. Patent & Trade Office. Readers are cautioned that the full text of any patent application should be read in its entirety for full and accurate details. Revelations found in patent applications shouldn't be interpreted as rumor or fast-tracked according to rumor timetables. Apple's patent applications have provided the Mac community with a clear heads-up on some of Apple's greatest product trends including the iPod, iPhone, iPad, iOS cameras, LED displays, iCloud services for iTunes and more.
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