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Apple's long-rumored all-glass tactile keyboard may be real sooner rather than later

New research uses tiny hydraulic pumps to create textured displays

Apple has been working on technologies to elevate glass on demand for keyboards and notifications for a long time, and newly published research from Carnegie Mellon may have a solution.

The technology could enable smartphones like the iPhone to physically deform a display for various elements, such as notifications. For example, such a display could present a raised bump to inform users of notifications more subtly, such as when the smartphone is in silent mode.

The Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University is behind the research, according to TechCrunch. They describe the technology as "embedded electroosmotic pumps for scalable shape displays."

The primary achievement they're claiming is the successful integration of the hydraulic haptic system into a slim panel concealed behind an OLED display, like the ones utilized in modern smartphones. They show their work in a research paper and offer a video demonstration.

The group says their electro-osmotic pumps can be as small as 2mm in diameter, with each pump being individually controllable and supporting fast update rates.

Apple has been working on technology like this for a long time

The technology can go beyond mere notifications, however. For example, Apple was granted a patent in 2019 titled, "Touch surface for simulating materials," in which the company proposes methods to modify a surface to produce a range of sensations that resemble those of diverse textures.

According to the patent, actuators, temperature control devices, and a central control unit are recommended for generating both types of feedback over a designated section of a touch surface. Regarding the actuators, the control unit will activate them to induce vibrations on the display, resulting in a tactile sensation of texture.

In the past, Apple has explored other ways to enhance the tactile experience for its users, as evidenced by the March 2017 patent titled "User Interface having changeable topography," which describes a display that can alter its shape to include raised sections. For instance, this could involve including elevated keys on a keyboard or calculator.

Apple has also done research into using haptic technology for keyboards. In 2022 it was granted a patent for a "keyless keyboard" that would use solid-state haptics technology that would replace physical keyboard kkeys with a glass display utilizing touch-sensing systems.

The patent describes a top layer of glass that features two force-sensing systems for distinct "input regions," as well as a touch-sensing system for detecting the position of the user's fingers. Haptic feedback is delivered through one or more actuators to provide a response for each keystroke.