What next for the MacBook keyboard? Apple has tacitly admitted the failures of the butterfly keyboard with both the extended warranty repair program for any faulty keyboards and the replacement of the butterfly design with a more traditional scissor-switched keyboard in the new 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Recently updated patents filed by Apple confirms plans to use light in its next-generation laptop keyboard.
Strictly speaking we’re talking about the use of light as a medium for sensors to understand the position of the keys – it doesn’t need to be laser light – but when Apple’s step back towards the scissor-switch keyboard of old is called a “Magic Keyboard” I can’t see the marketing department resisting the temptation to go for the ‘Magic Laser Keyboard’.
The use of light to understand user input first came to light in the summer, with Apple filing a patent simply titled “Optical Keyboard,” which described a method of using light to replace the electrical connection currently required:
“An input device may include a button or a key of a keyboard that uses a light sensor to detect key press events. The light sensor may detect changes in an amount of received light caused by actuation of a keycap of the button or key.”
Apple’s Research and Development team have been working on extending the principles and have filed a continuation patent with the USPTO as well as filing a similar patent with European agencies, according to Jack Purcher at Patently Apple:
“The changes made to the original patent claims granted this summer are highly technical and difficult to find. In one change or addition Apple notes “wherein the detected change in the amount of the received light determines a key function input of the key, wherein a location along the leg portion is configured to buckle at a time during motion of the keycap from the uncompressed position to the fully compressed position, and wherein the key function input is coordinated with a predetermined change in the amount of the received light corresponding to the time of the buckle.”
This sounds like a pretty ‘far out’ solution to a problem. It could simply be a research project that is getting some patents ‘just in case’. Given the number of defensive patents any technology company holds, that’s the safest bet.
If you want to go really out there, perhaps this is the actual replacement for the butterfly keyboard? The scissor-switch keyboard in the new MacBook Pro is arguably the same design used by the Mac family before the butterfly keyboard was launched four year. Using it in the 16-inch MacBook Pro suggests that Apple is aware that the butterfly is no longer fit for the high-end laptops and rolled back to a reliable design because the lasers were not ready.
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. The butterfly keyboard has to be replaced quietly and quickly with little fuss. Next year’s updates to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro machines should come with the scissor-switch styled keyboards. That will give Apple some breathing space to complete the research on the light powered keyboard and decide if it will move the technology into testing with a view to reaching production models.
If we are going to see a laser-branded keyboard, I personally don’t see it arriving before summer 2021 at the earliest.