Apple Patent for Switch-less Force Touch Keyboard

Apple awarded a patent for a switch-less keyboard that uses Force (or 3D) Touch. Might we see a keyboard like this in the future? Given that they just released the Magic Keyboard, it might be a few years from now. I’ve been pretty pleased with the way the haptic feedback feels on the Force Touch trackpad (on the new laptops) and the iPhone 6s Plus, so I could see how this might conceivably work.

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"In our relentless quest for perfection in everything we do, as espoused by our fellow travelers Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Miuccia Prada, as well as our obsession and drive to ensure the TextBlade is the most disruptive product ever released in human history, we are proud to announce a 18-month shipping delay. You should all be proud to be taking part in our crusade to market and accept orders for the world’s first ever switchless keyboard!

Remember, innovation is painful and hard. Be strong and accept the inevitable. Always stay true to your vision. Those who cannot adhere to the Way(tools) will never attain text-input enlightenment."

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Force touch on the Apple laptop line fools my senses pretty convincingly, and the additional utility it brings to iOS and OS X is pretty exciting. So much so that I may eventually eat my words purchase the Magic Trackpad 2 (which I previously pooh poohed as too expensive).

I’m more sceptical about the release of an Apple keyboard that replaces real buttons with haptic feedback. This patent is likely to be one of the MANY patents Apple files that never see the light of a production line…

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I suspect you’re right about the keyboard patent – Apple may well be staking a claim that they’ll never mine. I confess that I bought the new Trackpad 2 last week; it’s implemented very well; I’ve now dispensed with my mouse entirely.

When they finally release this thing, and if it proves to be as solid as it seems, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Apple buys Waytools and has their engineers begin to add force touch with some sort of micro trackpad idea. I can almost hear Jony Ive wax techno-poetic over the textblade-iPad match.

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  • with his “I’m high on acid man” distant stare.

TommyCR: How do you find it? Have you used the original trackpad at any length?

I have my trackpad (v1) on the left hand side of my keyboard, with my mouse still available. I couldn’t ditch the mouse entirely as I needed it for design software and games.

Its easy enough to learn the gestures on your left hand, but I’m not sure how satisfying the force click will be on that hand…

I guess I demand less from the device than you would, and I’m still figuring out dragging and dropping significant distances on screen. But I like it a lot – much more than the previous model, which I used only rarely. I don’t really miss the mouse. I have mine to the right of my keyboard (I’m right-handed) and find the extra real estate does make a significant difference to usability. There isn’t really much to do with Force Touch yet (that’ll change in future), but Apple definitely figured out haptic feedback. It truly feels like moving mechanical parts. I think Apple nailed it. Again. I look forward to teaming it up with the TextBlade for my docked MB Pro and Thunderbolt display setup. Using them together should free up a good deal of space on my desk, too – another plus.

Back in the day I actually purchased a Fingerworks ‘MacNTouch’ keyboard - the first to support multi-touch, use gestures, and not have any physical keys. It went the route you suggested - Apple bought them out entirely shortly after I got mine, closed them down, killed their products and rolled the IP into what became the iPhone. The keyboard was really cool and had some very clever features (my favorite was having the keyboard and mouse functions both available without having to move my hands), but wasn’t perfect - not having physical keys to keep your fingers properly aligned made typing a bit more challenging than one would hope. I could easily see history repeating itself with WayTools being absorbed and rolled into something even cooler - hopefully without killing the TextBlade itself.

I wonder if they could make the ‘taptic’ feedback precise enough to simulate the sensation of hitting the ‘edge’ of a virtual key to help keep the fingers properly centered and reduce mis-alignment errors?

I’ve thought about this objectively, and written my thoughts ahead. Afterwards I thought it sounded like I was having a go at someone. This wasn’t my intention at all. With that said, here’s my reply:

I am almost certain Apple will not release a product like the TextBlade. Apple tend to release peripherals that accommodate the mainstream user, and leaves it to other companies to produce specialist peripherals and software.

TextBlade works beautifully if you can touch type, but if you can’t, what does it offer, apart from its size, that isn’t novel? There is definitely a market for portable keyboards; but is that market large enough to attract a big player such as Apple - who are leaders in mobile devices, laptops, desktops, the music industry?

If they bought WayTools (or the copyright to TextBlade), assuming they were to release it ‘as is’, would it replace the keyboard that currently gets bundled with an iMac? Considering how many people are happy to type on any given keyboard an mouse at work, I think it unlikely for Apple to go down this route.

Apple has a history of simplifying complex products, the TextBlade as it currently appears, arguably adds complexity to the most essential input peripheral.

The recently released peripheral refresh was brought about by the new software paradigm introduced in El Capitan: Force Touch. The old trackpad had to be updated, and attention to detail made it necessary to update the keyboard too. This was simply to streamline its own peripheral line.

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Easy select, cut, copy, and paste. Then there’s the predefined repetitively entered text. A few keystroke can enter in large blocks rather than me typing them. As someone who has never learned to correctly touch type (despite being a computer user since the late 70s and in IT since the mid 80s), I really look forward to having these features on the TextBlade with a focus for use on my mobile devices. But if the TextBlade works out well, I’ll likely be using them on all of my hardware.

Rominronin - can’t say what Apple may think, but we believe complexity is the other way around -

80 keys are a lot more complicated than 8.

We think with time, one smart key per finger will just make a lot more sense.

Adam - regarding haptics on rigid static structures vs. dynamic keys - it’s easy to simulate this. Try typing out imaginary characters with your fingertips on a force touch MacBook. Idea sounds good in the abstract, but it’s quickly apparent it doesn’t work out so well on your fingers.

We did a lot of work on this before defining TextBlade architecture. Typing is very different from pointing devices.

BTW - new Apple force touch Magic Trackpad is awesome. Very pure form. Spare, elegant, gorgeous aesthetic, and wonderful sensory interaction. Industrial design at its best. An art piece, really.

Also, because it’s performance and kinetic behavior is firmware-based, it will evolve and get even more refined over time.

I’m glad to hear the new force-touch trackpad is good. I’m currently using the previous model on my macbook air daily while I’m at my desk, and I’d buy the update in a heart beat, but the company I work for is in the process of being sold, and I may be forced to switch to Windows under the new regime - :frowning: - so I’m waiting a few more weeks to see how things fall out. Fortunately the TextBlade should work equally well on either - once it finally materializes.

Oh - and as far as simplicity, my idea was that if you can successfully simulate physical keys on a virtual keyboard it would be possible to merge the trackpad and keyboard into one buttonless device, and get both functions without having to reposition you hands - which is a HUGE simplification not just in the physical devices, but in the core moment-to-moment interaction with a computer.

Yes, pretending to type on a large, wide smooth surface like a trackpad doesn’t feel right. That’s not what I as imagining with a theoretical Force Touch keyboard where each non-moving key would have Force Touch and haptic feedback.

Adam - yes, that’s another flavor we tried too. You can simulate that one by taping down plastic keytops onto a force touch trackpad. It doesn’t feel right. You get a form of feedback, but your fingers keep striking a rigid object and it becomes painful quickly. There’s not compliance to ease your fingers decent, and no springback to bound into the next action.

Pressing and clicking a pointer is very different from the staccato ballistic strikes that define typing. Touch typing is really unique in human interface.

Microsoft even tried a force sensing keyboard with some thin fabric cushioning on their early Surface. People hated it, so they killed it in favor of moving keys.

BTW - piezoelectric contraction actuators like the layer shown in the referenced patent move only microns, not millimeters. You can get a force impulse event, but no appreciable motion. The stated objective was zero travel.

Apple does a lot experimenting and patenting because that is central to the creative process, and they are prolific at exploring new and better ways to do things. The win ratio is usually something like 1 out of 10. But those 1’s can be huge hits so it’s worth trying. Typing machines are a remarkable subtle field of art.

The laser projection keyboard that I spoke about in an earlier post was terrible, but I thought that the idea of typing on a surface that didn’t move wasn’t bad. Since the device didn’t work well, I can’t speak about the long-term effects of typing on a surface that doesn’t give, but I don’t think it would be painful over long periods of time.

Here’s a scene from the original Tron where Dillinger is typing on a virtual keyboard. I wouldn’t dismiss the idea purely because current technology can’t do it well enough today.

Adam - thanks for clip. Loved Tron for its pioneering ideas in cgi film.

Ironically it’s increasingly the other way around now. Amazing how current technology is far outclassing recent SciFi. Dillinger’s desk is actually way less cool than today’s iPad. iPhones are shockingly better than Star Trek communicators. That’s the velocity of tech now.

If you want a rigid surface to type on, we do that today with iPads and phones. It doesn’t hurt because you look and touch lightly.

But Touch typing without looking is an entirely different experience, with different requirements.

There’s a reason why people still crave a physical keyboard when they have a stack of emails to answer.

I’m not talking about a rigid flat surface like the iPhone, iPad, or trackpad, but a rigid surface with raised keycaps. Software would be able to adjust the amount of pressure needed to register a keypress. Force touch capabilities would allow for a deep press to repeat characters or perform additional actions. Haptic feedback would provide the simulation of a keypress to the user.

I bought one of these over a decade ago, it was the multitouch keyboard from fingerworks. Apple bought them out and killed it off.

It is conversations like this that keep me from pulling out. I bought in January, so excited about it, and my best friends love to give me a hard time now: “How’s that tiny keyboard working out for you?”

But when I read the WayTools guys talking about typing or keyboards, it’s so clear that they have REALLY thought this through. I DO hear the point that Maggie and others have made that WT were selling this as a product not inviting investment or even advertising as a kickstart product. Maybe their communication about that was misleading; but what I hear is care and thoughtfulness that I want to invest in and want to produce a product.

Your mileage may vary.

In this world, it’s really unlikely someone like me will ever get it exactly right: only invest in things that work out. Either I’m going miss out on some things or spend on some that fail. If getting it perfect is unlikely, as a westerner with some, even if not a lot, disposable income — if I am going to err one way or the other, I’d rather err by losing money by supporting excellence that fails, than err by playing it safe and, by default, supporting the status quo.

Maybe that translates to “There’s a sucker born every minute.” I’ll take that risk in this case.

Gotta go… a guy wants to sell me a bridge. Looks cool.