Future MacBooks could drop physical keyboards for virtual ones

MacBook Pro keyboard

Three new patents that Apple has filed have been spotted, and these represent yet more evidence that the company is considering making a MacBook with a virtual keyboard to replace the typical mechanical affair – or possibly a compromise solution which keeps a physical keyboard, but adds a large touch sensitive surround (more on that later).

This is nothing new, as we have previously seen patents that have envisaged a MacBook using a touch display in place of a keyboard base, and a virtual keyboard with haptic feedback (or indeed a dual-screen MacBook in a similar vein).

This time around, one patent, as spotted by Apple Insider, describes a MacBook with a base that has a transparent top – fashioned from either glass or plastic – with a number of sensors under this transparent layer which are in place to gauge where the user’s fingers are touching, and how much force the digits are applying.

Potentially, this virtual keyboard could incorporate a display that’s capable of illuminating the keys from underneath, and it could easily facilitate changing the keys to different symbols or languages (or even a keyboard layout fully customized to the user’s liking, or one that boasts controls for specific pieces of software, rather like the Touch Bar does for MacBooks right now).

The other patents cover different possible spins on a future notebook, such as a compromise solution where a mechanical keyboard is still used, but is surrounded – on the sides and at the bottom – by a touch sensitive area; like a giant U-shaped trackpad, in a way. The keycaps would also be touch sensitive according to this concept, and that would allow for the user to swipe gestures over them to achieve certain functions.

Another idea is an actual ‘keyboard’ accessory that’s merely the core physical keys fashioned as an overlay, which can be placed on top of the virtual keyboard base, and the latter would still be used to detect key presses. Essentially giving you an option on a physical keyboard of sorts when required for, say, longer typing sessions on a sprawling document.

Haptic feedback is also likely to be incorporated in whatever route Apple decides to take, as has been mentioned in previous patents.

Growing evidence

Does this mean that Apple is definitely working on some kind of virtual keyboard for future MacBook devices? No, but with the growing amount of material relating to this concept, it definitely seems this is a path Apple wants to take.

On a final note, the three patents also discuss potential ways of shoring up the MacBook’s keyboard against the ravages of dust and spillages. This would involve the addition of a protective membrane, as seen in the new MacBook Pro, except in this case it would be fully sealed and watertight to cover the keyboard entirely, but with material flexible enough that the actual usage of the keyboard wouldn’t be detrimentally affected.

It’s clear that improving the keyboard on its notebooks is a key area (ahem) for Apple, which is hardly surprising given the reliability issues the hardware has been criticized for in recent times. You can be pretty sure that further work on this front is something that’s in the pipeline.

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).