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

Takeaway: 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?

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