MacBook may get a touchscreen keyboard with haptic feedback keys

MacBook Pro keyboard

Remember a couple of weeks back when a patent emerged showing Apple’s idea for a dual-screen MacBook, which replaces the traditional keyboard base with a second display? Well, a fresh patent throws more light on the possible implementation of this in the form of a ‘keyless’ keyboard with haptic feedback for Apple’s laptops (or indeed potentially the iPad Pro).

The basic idea (as spotted by Patently Apple) is to use a touch display that can morph into anything – another concept Apple has toyed with in past patents – switching on-the-fly between, say, different language layouts, or perhaps an emoji keyboard, or an ergonomically designed one with keys split into two different banks.

Or when playing a video, for example, the keyboard would be transformed into large buttons representing media controls (play/pause, fast forward, volume and so forth).

Indeed, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the possible applications of this along the lines of the Touch Bar, which can be tuned context-sensitively to adapt to the app in use. Apple mentions virtual ‘gaming inputs’ in the patent, too.

The key (ahem) here, though, is that Apple is wanting to give this touchscreen the feel of a real keyboard by adding haptic feedback.

Let’s get physical

In the patent, Apple notes that “haptic actuators may induce a physical sensation that is similar to or representative of a mechanical key”. Apple describes a possible scenario where the haptic actuators would be a layer under the screen, and they could use some kind of force sensing mechanism to go beyond a simple haptic ‘buzz’ and allow for various neat tricks.

For example, when a user’s finger presses down it could “form a depression in the keyboard surface beneath the finger”, to give a sense of a real key press. And force sensing would be able to detect when the user was simply resting their fingers on keys, rather than actually pressing them down.

In short, Apple is shooting for a virtual keyboard which behaves just like a real one, but offers the added flexibility to completely change keys and keyboard layouts whenever you want.

It certainly sounds as if it would be a considerable step forward from the likes of Lenovo’s virtual Halo Keyboard as seen in the Yoga Book (and note that we were impressed with how good the typing experience was on that device).

Apple is clearly determined to advance keyboard technology one way or another, because last week we saw another patent, this time for a crumb-resistant and spill-proof keyboard for the MacBook.

Of course, shifting across to a virtual keyboard would neatly sidestep those sort of issues anyway.

As ever, bear in mind that all of these concepts are just that: merely ideas that Apple is punting around in its research labs, and there’s no guarantee any of them will ever be seen in a real-world product.

Given the sheer weight of all these patents, though, it’s a pretty good bet that a major keyboard innovation is 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).