Will forthcoming Apple Tablet employ dynamic surface for tactile virtual keyboard?

Thu, Dec 24, 2009

News, Rumors

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that a former Apple employee told them that “[users] will be very surprised how you interact with the new tablet.”  A surprise from Apple?  Get outta here!

But what the hell might it be? Well, AppleInsider dug up a patent application first filed in 2007 detailing a system which would employ a dynamic surface to provide users of a tablet with tactile feedback for typing when appropriate.

Using what is termed as an “articulating frame”, the patent describes a process by which the surface of the device would be able to employ “physical bumps or dots for the users to feel when it is in keyboard mode.” Naturally, when used for actions aside from typing, the surface would remain as smooth as the surface of an iPhone.

The patent application reads,

“The articulating frame may provide key edge ridges that define the boundaries of the key regions or may provide tactile feedback mechanisms within the key regions. The articulating frame may also be configured to cause concave depressions similar to mechanical key caps in the surface.”

But dots or bumps on virtual keys only solves half of the problem.  Users need tactile feedback, they need to feel the sensation of actually pressing down on a keyboard, especially on a device as large as the Apple tablet is rumored to be.  Otherwise, the whole notion of employing bumps on keys would be pointless. And in that regard, Apple’s patent has a solution to that as well in that it describes a device with the capability of dynamically changing its surface to make typing a more natural experience.

The patent describes the system as follows:

“Preferably, each key edge comprises one to four distinct bars or Braille-like dots. When constructed in conjunction with a capacitive multi-touch surface, the key edge ridges should separated to accommodate the routing of the drive electrodes, which may take the form of rows, columns, or other configurations.

“Specifically, the recognition software commands lowering of the frame when lateral sliding gestures or mouse clicking activity chords are detected on the surface,” the application states. Alternatively, when homing chords (i.e., placing the fingers on the home row) or asynchronous touches (typing activity) is detected on the surface, the recognition software commands raising of the frame.”

Keep in mind that this is by no means a guarantee of how the tablet will function as Apple routinely files patents for technologies that it never ends up employing in actual products.  But the timing of the patent application in conjunction with the quote from the former Apple employee may add up to something.  We’ve long asserted that the tablet needs a killer feature to not only justify its price point, but its very existence.

We have to believe, though, that there’s more to this Apple tablet than meets the eye.  A lot more.  Previous tablet offerings have failed to impress consumers, and as opposed to other markets it’s entered (MP3 players, Smartphones), the tablet market doesn’t really exist on the scale that would warrant Apple’s involvement.  And the Apple TV aside, Apple simply doesn’t enter a market unless it feels that it can sell a significant number of units.  So if Apple does in fact release a tablet in 2010, it will only do so if it genuinely believes that it can push a ton of them out the door.  But to do that, it needs some sort of groundbreaking feature that we can’t quite put our finger on.  A large multitouch screen with 3G access is a good start, but that’s certainly not enough.

If the forthcoming tablet actually does employ a working and acceptable dynamic surface that can closely emulate a physical keyboard experience, well, then there’s you’re groundbreaking feature right there.

The patent above is attributed to Apple inventor Wayne Carl Westerman and was first filed in October 2007.


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