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Future MacBook Pro keyboard could act as a trackpad with touch-sensitive fabric

MacBook Pro trackpad and keyboard.

A future MacBook Pro may have keys that could be used as a touchpad, with the same technology possible for use in a design where there's no dedicated touchpad section at all.

One of the more tricky areas of designing a notebook computer lies in the relationship between the areas set aside for the keyboard and the trackpad. A large keyboard may be comfortable for the user to use, but it could leave little room for the manufacturer to place the trackpad.

Conversely, making space for a larger trackpad may push the keyboard further away from the user, or force it to be made smaller than preferred. This also impacts the physical size of the notebook as well, as a smaller screen means there's less space on the lower section available, which makes squeezing a keyboard and trackpad in even harder.

In a patent granted to Apple by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday titled "Keyboard with touch sensor," the suggestion is to make the keyboard effectively become a trackpad in its own right, by having touch-sensitive keys.

Rather than having a touch-enabled key that treats a touch as a key press, Apple intends to still employ a keyboard switching mechanism of some form, ensuring a typical typing experience for the user. In this interpretation, Apple instead suggests adding an extra element on top of the keys to enable the touchpad functionality.

The touch-sensitive fabric overlays the key mechanism.
The touch-sensitive fabric overlays the key mechanism.

Apple suggests that there could be a layer of fabric applied above the keys, which includes touch sensor circuity such as a capacitive touch sensor, and conductive strands made from polymer-coated copper wire. By being flexible, the covering will enable users to still press the keys of the keyboard without any interference.

By being fabric glued to the tops of the keys, there is some excess that will drape down the sides of each key and run to its neighbor, or off the edge of the keyboard area into other sections of the notebook's housing. In effect, this can allow for a single contiguous trackpad surface to be used, even if it covers only part of the keyboard area.

One sheet of fabric can cover multiple keys without needing cuts or segmenting.
One sheet of fabric can cover multiple keys without needing cuts or segmenting.

The images and the description of the idea seems to suggest the use of the fabric would work regardless of the key switch mechanism being used, so it wouldn't necessarily require the creation of a new switch type in order to function.

Monitoring circuitry would be used to examine how the user is interacting with the trackpad-keyboard combination, such as to determine intended trackpad touches or if the user is simply resting their fingers on keys in anticipation of typing. The same system would also automatically engage the trackpad over the keyboard in the case of multi-point gestures.

It is also feasible for a force touch gesture to be made using the setup, combining data from force sensors in the fabric with presses of keys.

The patent lists its inventors as Daniel D. Sunshine, Daniel A. Podhajny, and David M. Kindlon, and it was originally filed in March 2017.

Multiple fabric layers could add force detection on top of touch.
Multiple fabric layers could add force detection on top of touch.

Apple files numerous patent applications on a weekly basis, but while the existence of a patent doesn't guarantee it will reappear in a future product or service, it does serve as an indicator of areas of interest for Apple's research and development teams.

The idea of updating the keyboard and trackpad interfaces has resulted in many patent filings over the years, exploring the concept in a multitude of ways.

In 2015, Apple suggested adding touch sensors on top of mechanical keys for a similar effect, including the possibility of one hand actively typing while the other is used to control the cursor simultaneously. Touch-sensitive keys also appeared in a March 2020 filing, one that was first filed in late 2008.

A 2018 "Keyless Keyboard" filing suggested replacing the entire lower section of a MacBook with a touchscreen that displayed an updatable keyboard, one that used haptic feedback via actuators to confirm each key "press."

The idea of expanding the trackpad area isn't limited to just the keys, as another from 2018 proposed how the entire lower section of a MacBook and the keys could become one giant trackpad, instead of limiting it to one small area.

Apple has even reconsidered the purpose of the trackpad, with a March 2020 filing suggesting a touch-sensitive screen could be used as a trackpad, one that could display autocorrect or autocomplete suggestions or other items that would usually be reserved for the MacBook Pro's Touch Bar.