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Apple Reveals Future Invisible & Light-Forming MacBook Controls


A new patent application from Apple has surfaced this morning that reveals some rather interesting concepts involving the use of both invisible and light-forming device controls. The good news is that it's not theory. The technology, in-part, is being utilized in Apple's new Magic Mouse. The no-button Mouse is what this patent is all about – and yet Apple takes us to the next level of where this could be going. We could eventually see this technology apply to future iPods, the Apple TV remote and perhaps more importantly, next generation MacBooks – where it really gets interesting.

The Visible or Invisible Button Concept Overview

Apple's patent FIG. 1 shown below presents us with a generic electronic device 10. Device 10 could be, for example, a laptop computer, a media device, a remote control, a game player, or any other device that requires a button or switch.

Device 10 features an invisible button or switch 20, whose location is shown in phantom (the square in dotted lines). Button 20 is used to control some function associated with electronic device 10. The device has a metal frame (30), which may be, for example, be aluminum. Button 20 is invisible because it is made from and integral with the same metal as the frame. The button is flush with and does not bulge out or otherwise protrude into or out of the frame. Therefore, it is not visible from the exterior of the device. The frame may have markings (e.g., paint, texture) to indicate the location of the button in some instances.


2 - Visible, Invisble buttons 

Apple's patent FIG. 2 presents us with a side cross sectional view of the device. The metal frame has a face (#40). Inside of the device there's an interior wall (50) below the face. In between face and the wall is a dielectric medium 60, such as air. In another implementation, the dielectric medium could be foam or rubber. In these implementations, supports (#70) could be unnecessary and therefore removed. The supports are disposed between the face and the interior wall. Dielectric medium could be a dielectric gel (instead of air).

For example, when the user presses down on button 20, the device may turn on or off. Since both capacitor plates 80 and 85 are internal to the device 10, it's not necessary to push the button with a conducting material, e.g., a finger or stylus, as is the case with traditional capacitive sensing technology (e.g., glass touch screens). In contrast to traditional capacitive sensing surfaces, a user could successfully activate the button wearing a non-conductive glove, for example – which is handy in the winter.

Apple explains that how far the user presses down on the device could correlate to how bright to make a light, for example, how loud to play music, or how fast to go forward or backward in a movie. This is made clearer below in the laptop example.

In some embodiments, it may not be desirable to have button 20 visible or invisible all of the time. As previously mentioned, although the frame may have markings (e.g., paint, texture) to indicate the location of the button, these markings would be visible all of the time and detract from the aesthetic simplicity of the housing. To selectively control the visibility of the button, tiny invisible micro-perforations or holes 90 could be formed in the face of the device as shown below in figure 5B.

Defining Invisibility

Apple's patent FIG. 5B below presents you with a magnified view of button 20 shown in FIG. 5A. A pattern of holes could be disposed on the frame to indicate the borders of the button. This pattern could be formed by, for example, laser cutting through the frame. The holes, although shown greatly exaggerated in the Figure, are actually invisible. That is, each of the holes is smaller than resolvable by an unaided human eye

3 - Defining Invisibility 

Thus, as defined herein, "invisible holes" refers to holes that are smaller than resolvable by an unaided human eye. In one embodiment, the diameter of invisible holes 90 can range from between 20 .mu.m to 80 .mu.m, inclusive. Light shining through holes 90 is visible to the naked eye. This gives the impression that button 20 can be made visible or invisible at will.

The Invisible Button Concept Has Multiple Applications

4 - buttons below the surface of the device 

Apple's patent figures noted above are simply to provide you with a visual of buttons actually being below the surface of the device. Think of Apple's new Magic Mouse in order to grasp the concept of this patent. In fact patent point confirms this position by stating that "as with conventional track pads, the invisible track pad can also compute the speed of an object scrolling over its surface, and it can also employ multi-touch technology."

Now that Apple has utilized this on the Magic Mouse, there's great potential to move this technology other devices. For instance, in patent point 77 Apple states that "in one embodiment an invisible slider can be formed in the shape of a scroll wheel (not shown)." That obviously points to another avenue that Apple could utilize this technology: in an iPod Classic-like embodiment. The physical wheel could simply become invisible until you go to use the scroll wheel and then the scroll wheel would become visible through means of light. The light would form what appears to be a scroll wheel. In fact, here are some of the conditions that may activate such functionality:

  • The backlight can be activated as a function of ambient lighting conditions, for example, in low light (dark) conditions.
  • A motion sensor (not shown) may interface with an LED and activate it when motion is detected.
  • Heat and/or sound sensors (not shown) could interface with and activate an LED when heat and/or sound are detected.
  • The backlight could be activated when a user taps or presses down on the scroll wheel area

The technology that Apple is presenting could also apply to invisible buttons used on desktops, MacBooks. For example, an eject button of an optical drive could simply be a button of light rather than a physical button. It could be used on Apple's remote control to replace physical buttons or even on future MacBooks.

Possible MacBook Trackpad Replacement

Apple's patent blatantly states that in another embodiment, the present invention could be used to replace traditional track pads and/or traditional track pad buttons with invisible buttons or invisible track pads. Referring now to Apple's patent FIG. 26 below, we see a laptop computer (5000) shown with its lid open. Track pad 5004 has a track surface 5006 for scrolling and a button 5008 for clicking. In conventional track pads, track surface 5006 and button 5008 are normally separate components. Button 5008 could be replaced with an invisible button and give the laptop/MacBook a more seamless and attractive look. The track surface 5006 itself could even be replaced with an invisible track pad.

5 - Replace Trackpad 

In another embodiment, invisible controls could be added to the laptop using the present invention. In one implementation, invisible control 5009 is shown in FIG. 26. Invisible control 5009 may be used, for example, to control music or video stored and played from the laptop Invisible control may have, for example, rewind 5010, play 5012, and fast forward 5014 invisible buttons and it may have increase 5016 and decrease 5018 invisible volume controls. Invisible holes may form patterns indicative of the functions of these buttons (e.g., rewind arrow, play arrow, fast forward arrow, volume increase plus, volume decrease minus, etc.). The holes may be backlit.


Invisible control 5009 may be a contextual control, meaning that the function of control 5009 is dependent upon an operating state of the device. The backlight may also be activated as a function of the operating state of the device. For example, control 5009 becomes visible automatically when a DVD or CD is inserted into the laptop or when iTunes is active.

In other implementations, invisible contextual controls (not shown) could be used to deactivate a camera, eject a disk or USB stick, or to illuminate the keyboard depending on the state of laptop. Each of these invisible contextual controls could be made to become visible under appropriate situations (e.g., when the camera is on, the disk or USB stick is in, or if it is dark, respectively).

Apple even goes one step further to enlighten us by stating that it's possible for the entire keyboard 5020 could be replaced with an array of invisible buttons. In fact, all of the conventional keys, buttons, track pads, etc. on a MacBook or other electronic device could be replaced by invisible inputs according to the present invention. In this way, the truly seamless design has become a reality.

Apple credits Omar Leung and David Amm as the inventors of patent application 20100103116, originally filed in Q4 2008.

Notice: Patently Apple presents only a brief summary of patents with associated graphic(s) 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 further details. For additional information on any patent reviewed here today, simply feed the individual patent number(s) noted in this report into this search engine. About Comments: Patently Apple reserves the right to post, dismiss or edit comments.





Yes Tom, same idea. They might make the holes even smaller -- I'm not sure.


Is the micro perforations slightly like how the sleep light is done on the unibody?

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