Apple patents are a way to preview how the firm may evolve its technology. When a refreshed device is due soon (MacBooks) it's always tempting to wonder if Apple will reveal cool, freshly patented features...like a whole suite of clever, configurable touchpad improvements.
Apple's super-simple, large, multitouch touchpads have led the laptop industry for years--recent innovations have seen the pads get a glide-friendly glass coating, adopt the same aluminum color as the rest of Apple's mobile PCs and lose the physical click mouse-button altogether (the entire pad is now a click button). But Apple imagines its technology going far further than this.
In a recent patent Apple's suggesting that it should be possible to build a capacitive touchpad (i.e. one that's multitouch-capable) not just out of the usual glass/plastic/composite materials that current touchpads use, but also to leverage the fact a increasing number of devices have housings made of metal and thereby make the touchpad part of the metallic casing itself. In Apple's invention, the casing forms one electrode of the sensing capacitor, and the other electrodes are inside the case, separated by a dielectric medium like air or foam.
What could this create? For starters, an invisible keypad on the bottom of a Mac that has all the usual multitouch powers, but is completely seamless--meaning less chance to introduce dust or spilled coffee into a PC. It also enables touch sensitivity on the underside or lid of Macs or mobile devices like iPhones, in a way that doesn't mess with a the form.
Apple's inventors realized this metal touchpad tech could go one step further: If you've built a seamless trackpad into your aluminum unibody Mac then why not a seamless touch keyboard as well? Unlike the trackpad you'd need to be able to see the keys, so Apple imagines drilling micropores through the aluminum PC body to let light through (a tech it already uses for things like the webcam LED). By putting a matrix of tiny LEDs behind the metal casing, you'd be able to illuminate the metal touch-keyboard.
But you could also use this system to build a reconfigurable keyboard that displays icons instead of alphabetic key legends--a seamless multitouch system reminiscent of the Optimus Maximus device--that could aid programming or gaming (imagine your World of Warcraft spell icons instead of key numerals to see what we mean).
Apple even suggests you could use the area to display an iTunes equalizer, for a kind of trippy unibody music display.
By incorporating the LED lighting, configurable display and all-metal touchpad sensor into devices like an iPad or iPhone, Apple's patent also notes it should be possible to give these (and other mobile devices) touch sensitivity that could even let them react to squeezes or taps. For example, you may be able to squeeze your iPhone through your pants pocket to turn off its ringer without needing to locate and flick a volume switch.
But we imagine Apple could have much cleverer uses for this--like making the rear face of an iPad a touchscreen, and turning the tablet into a twin-sensitive-surface device like Sony's NGP PSP2. Or how about an external gesture-sensing status strip on the top of an iPhone that could alert you to particular events (a la some Android phones) and also doubles as the home button, volume control or silence button?
We don't particularly expect Apple to embrace all of this tech any time soon, but we wouldn't be surprised to see a novel implementation like the all-metal touchpad showing up on an upcoming MacBook refresh. Apple's also been patenting tricks like smart touch-sensitive bezels for laptop and tablet screens, and the metal touchpad would seem an ideal way to implement this--including tweaks like an iPhone without a physical home button.
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