Apple is developing an optical keyboard that uses light to determine when a key is pressed instead of a physical key switch, according to a newly published patent.
If you’re familiar with Apple’s ongoing MacBook keyboard trouble, you know that such a system could solve a lot of the butterfly keyboard’s problems. Here’s what you need to know about the patent.
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Most keyboards rely on some type of actuation when a key is pressed down. Typically, that means that a key switch is depressed when a key press happens and contacts are connected. That results in a specific key character appear on screen.
Apple’s patent, recently granted to the Cupertino tech giant and published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shortly after, imagines a different scenario.
To put it the simplest way possible, the patent suggests that physical contact isn’t necessary for a keyboard to work. Instead, the patent hints at using light for an actuation to occur.
Based on some of the patent figures, the theoretical keyboard seems to rely on beams of light underneath a specific key. When a user presses down on one of these keys, it could block or change that beam of light. The result is that the system can register that blockage as a key press, just like on a traditional keyboard.
Additionally, the patent goes into the weeds about some of the other possible details of a light-based keyboard.
For one, Apple could use a specific structure that buckles, providing key feel and tactile feedback to users — an important part of the typing experience. The patent also proposes using a dome structure, which could make the key cap itself easily replaceable.
Apple could make the key itself out of a partially transparent material, and it could emit its own light.
It’s also possible that Apple could implement some type of customization here, allowing users to set different “actuation points.” Essentially, you could tailor whether you want more key travel or less key travel based on your specific preference.
Lastly, the system wouldn’t even need an entirely new light source. Apple’s current Mac notebooks have backlit keyboards, and the patent suggests that the system could simply use that existing lighting mechanism for its own purposes.
Benefits of Optical Keyboards
At this point, Apple’s so-called optical keyboard is just a theoretical idea. But if the company actually adds it to a device down the road, it could add a number of tangible benefits.
- Durability: An optical keyboard would likely be much more robust than standard scissor switches or Apple’s own butterfly mechanism. It would be a lot less prone to failure due to the lack of key switches. The end result is a keyboard that could withstand a lot more key presses.
- Thinness: While an optical keyboard could be more durable than a butterfly keyboard, it could potentially be just as thin. That means that Apple wouldn’t need to increase the thickness of its Mac notebooks to implement it.
- Repairability: Without a physical key switch, it would seem that there are fewer parts that could break. A keyboard repair could simply involve swapping out the individual keycap. Compared to the involved top-case repairs seen with many butterfly keyboards, this would make Mac notebooks a lot more repairable.
- Customization: As noted earlier, users may be able to actually change how firm of a key press they’d need to register an input. Basically, you could change whether you want more key travel or less.
In other words, the system could combine the benefits of a physical keyboard with some of the theoretical boons made possible by other more experimental keyboards (which we’ll get to below).
Is Apple likely to use it?
This question is actually much harder to answer because of Apple’s current roadmap and some other indications that it might ditch its previous keyboards.
An upcoming 16-inch MacBook Pro refresh, for example, is rumored to ditch the butterfly keyboard in favor of a more traditional scissor-switch mechanism. Reportedly, that keyboard will be Apple’s standard going forward.
But Apple has also filed numerous patents related to more fringe keyboard ideas. That could include the use of touch sensitive keys, glass panel keyboards with force detection, or even replacing an entire keyboard with a touchscreen.
While those touchscreen- and glass-based dead would solve the durability issue, they would likely offer poor tactical feedback.
Using a light-based optical key mechanism, as we mentioned earlier, could significantly increase the durability of a MacBook keyboard without sacrificing the typing experience.
Still, Apple files a lot of patents with the USPTO, and many of them never seen the light of day. Similarly, we have no idea when Apple could debut a MacBook optical keyboard. But, based on Apple’s continued problems with its butterfly keyboards, it seems like the company is dedicating quite a lot of research in the area. An optical keyboard may very well be on the table for a future Mac.
Mike is a freelance journalist from San Diego, California.
While he primarily covers Apple and consumer technology, he has past experience writing about public safety, local government, and education for a variety of publications.
He’s worn quite a few hats in the journalism field, including writer, editor, and news designer.