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Apple is working on how to make a perforated aluminum keyboard case with keycaps that include an array of LEDs that can change what is displayed on every key.
Apple files all sorts of patents to protect its intellectual property and research from would-be imitators — even if the technology is never used. Some patents tend to be incredibly vague or difficult to determine until the product is put into practice.
One such document, discovered on Thursday, describes a futuristic MacBook keyboard that can change what is displayed on the keys. However, unlike previous touchscreen keyboard concepts, this one will use physical keys and LEDs to perform the trick.
At first glance, the keyboard will still look like a standard hardware keyboard. The key shells will be aluminum instead of plastic, and when the MacBook is turned off, there will be no visible markings on the keys.
Pressing a key would still actuate the scissor switch mechanism, so typing would be similar to the existing plastic keyboards used on MacBooks today. However, the keyboard will be made from the same material as the rest of the laptop, resulting in a more uniform design, color gamut, and rigidity. Note that Apple used aluminum keycaps on the PowerBook G4, but they had the usual key markings.
When the MacBook is turned on, the keys are backlit. A standard keyboard will be displayed, and unlike today's plastic keys, the light will only be visible from the glyph on the key cover. In the aluminum case of the keys, there should be no light spots on the edges of the keys.
If the user needs access to characters, emoji or even punctuation, the keyboard will be able to change that , which is displayed on the key cover. Think of it as a physical keyboard that functions like an iPhone software keyboard — changing what is shown to fit the context.
This can be achieved with a mini LED or similar backlight under the aluminum key plate. Each key will be precisely perforated so that each LED shines directly through the top of the keycap.
Each key will effectively act as a low resolution display, displaying any letter or glyph that is needed.
This technology is different from using miniature per-key displays such as the Stream Deck. It also cannot produce high resolution images like an OLED display or similar. This patent is more closely related to the 8-bit display than to the full display.
Apple Patent 2022/0399172 A1 by Mike Wurtele on Scribd