With Apple's Mac event set for next week, it was interesting to see a patent application from Apple today published by the US Patent & Trademark Office that discusses a new dimension being considered for a future MacBook keyboard that would seemingly provide users with a way to customize key sensitivity and feel. When Apple released their all-new MacBook, the one aspect of it that was universally condemned was the feel of its new keyboard from Ars Technica, Gizmodo, Cult of Mac and many others.
Apple notes in their patent background that certain users may prefer certain keyboards (and/or keys) to have specific electromechanical properties. For example, certain users may prefer to type with rigid and deep keys whereas other users may prefer to type with spongy and short keys.
However, customizing the typing experience of a keyboard for a particular user requires modification of multiple components of each electromechanical actuator specifically because the electrical, tactile, and mechanical functionality of the depressible key are tightly coupled and interdependent. For example, independently increasing the rigidity of the tactile feedback structure can affect the user's perception of both press sensitivity and key stiffness. As a result, enhancing and/or refining characteristics of the user's typing experience on a keyboard conventionally involves alteration of multiple materials, multiple structures, and multiple couplings which, in turn, increases the time and cost associated with research and development, prototyping, re-tooling, and manufacturing of keys and keyboards.
This is what this latest Apple invention sets out to remedy as they see a need for systems and methods for decoupling the mechanical and tactile functionality of depressible keys from the electrical functionality of depressible keys.
Apple notes that it is often the case that the mechanical, material, electrical, and structural properties of the components a conventional electromechanical actuator of a key can inform a user's holistic perception and opinion of certain operational characteristics (e.g., flexibility, stickiness, snappiness, sponginess, stiffness, softness, sensitivity, rigidity, crispness, quality, responsiveness, durability, and so on) of an entire keyboard. However, as a result of dimensional constraints, alignment requirements, and/or various interdependencies of the electrical, tactile, and mechanical components of each electromechanical actuator, customizing the user experience of a particular keyboard typically requires modification of multiple (if not all) components of each electromechanical actuator.
With Apple invention, an electrical indication of a key press does not require mechanical closure of a physical switch, such as is the case for conventional electromechanical actuators. As a result, changes to the mechanical properties of keyboard embodiments described herein have substantially no effect on the electrical functionality thereof.
Furthermore, decoupling the electrical functionality from the mechanical functionality of depressible keys removes alignment and dimensional requirements of the components providing the mechanical functionality of the key. In other words, embodiments described in the patent filing can provide customized mechanical and tactile responses using travel mechanisms and tactile feedback structures that need not be nested or aligned in any particular manner.
Many embodiments described in the patent filing decouple the electrical functionality and mechanical functionality of depressible keys by monitoring the output of a proximity sensor in communication with the depressible key in lieu of relying upon mechanical closure of a physical switch.
Later in the patent filing Apple notes that "in one embodiment, a personal computer can adjust one or more thresholds for one or more keys based on an application or program operating on the personal computer at a particular time.
In one embodiment, the threshold force with which the keycap is pressed may be different for certain keys when the personal computer is operating a word processing application than when the personal computer is operating a gaming application.
For example, in some cases, a personal computer can lower one or more thresholds upon determining that a certain key or set of keys are more likely than others to be pressed in a particular application.
Similarly, a personal computer can raise one or more thresholds upon determining that a certain key or set of keys are less likely than others to be pressed in a particular application.
In one non-limiting example, a personal computer operating a word processing application can lower thresholds for alphanumeric keys, while increasing thresholds for function keys. In this example, a user of the keyboard is less likely to accidentally press one or more function keys because the threshold for pressing said keys is increased.
Apple's patent FIG. 4A depicts a simplified cross-section and signal flow diagram of an example implementation of a user-depressible surface (e.g., keycap, trackpad, etc.) with decoupled electrical and mechanical functionality; FIG. 4B depicts the depressible surface of FIG. 4A, showing an exaggerated deformation of the keycap that may result from a localized application of force.
To dig further into this invention, review Apple's patent application 20160306437. Apple filed for this invention back in Q2 2015. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.
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