We’ve been hearing reports that Apple is planning to adopt hardware keyboard with e-ink displays in future MacBooks, the most recent of which suggested that the technology will be incorporated into 2018 models.

A new patent application suggests that the company may also be looking to make future keyboard even higher-tech by allowing the feel of the keyboard to work for both shallow and deeper keypresses …

The patent notes that different people have different preferences for keyboard feel when typing, from those who like extremely shallow keyboards like that in the 12-inch MacBook to those who favor the deep movement of a traditional mechanical keyboard. Meeting all these different preferences is not practical unless it can be done artificially.

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.

Accordingly, there may be a present need for systems and methods for decoupling the mechanical and tactile functionality of depressible keys from the electrical functionality of depressible keys.

The solution, suggests the patent, is to allow the keyboard to detect a keypress even if the key doesn’t travel far enough to make mechanical contact with a sensor at the bottom. Optical sensors would detect shallow keypresses, while those who like longer travel would be able to fully depress the keys.

A keycap with an optically reflective bottom surface, a travel mechanism coupled to the underside of the keycap, a tactile feedback structure configured to collapse in response to a force applied to the keycap, and an optical sensor including, in one embodiment, a light emitter oriented to emit light toward the reflective bottom surface, and a light detector oriented to receive light reflected from the reflective bottom surface.

The patent also suggests that the degree of movement required for detection could be set automatically depending on the app being used.

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 [for example, it] 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.

As with all Apple patents, there’s no way to know whether this will ever make it into a finished product, but this is something I’d personally love to see (or to feel …). It may just finally end the controversy over that butterfly keyboard mechanism.

Via Patently Apple