Patent report: next gen Apple laptop, expanded Force Touch on Macs

Apple files for — and is granted — lots of patents by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Many are for inventions that never see the light of day. However, you never can tell which ones will materialize in a real product, so here are this week’s patent highlights: 

One of the most interesting patents to appear this week hints at a next generation Mac laptop is for a that hints at a configurable, force-sensitive input structure that may be configured as a variety of input devices for the electronic device including, but not limited to, a keyboard, a number pad or a track pad. Patent number 20160098107 is for a “configurable force-sensitive input structure for electronic devices.

Apple says that conventional input devices, such as keyboards or track pads for a laptop, are susceptible to damage due to, among other things, a drop or mechanical shock. What’s more, because many conventional input devices have a number of components positioned both inside and outside the casing of the electronic device, the risk of component failure may increase. Apple is apparently considering eliminating the physical keypad and trackpad in lieu of a force sensitive apparatus that would serve as both.

Here’s a summary of the invention: “A configurable, force-sensitive input structure for an electronic device is disclosed. The input structure has a metal contact layer, a sense layer positioned below the metal contact layer, and a drive layer capacitively coupled to the sense layer. The input structure may also have a compliant layer positioned between and coupled to the sense layer and the drive layer, a rigid base layer positioned below the drive layer, and a set of supports positioned between the metal contact layer and the rigid base layer.”

Force Touch may be on its way to the Mac. Apple has been granted a patent (number 9,304,587) for a “force sensing mouse” that hints at an upcoming Magic Mouse with Force Touch. That’s Apple’s pressure sensitive multi-touch technology that enables trackpads and touchscreens to distinguish between different levels of force being applied to their surfaces. 

Apple’s patent is for a force sensing input device (such as a force sensing mouse) includes at least one force sensor and at least one top portion movably connected to at least one bottom portion. When a force is applied to the top portion, the top portion exerts pressure on the force sensor. The force sensor obtains force data based upon the pressure. 

The amount of force applied to the top portion, within a range of force amounts, is determined from at least the force data. In this way, a broader range of inputs may be receivable from the force sensing input device as compared to input devices that merely detect whether or not a button or similar element has been pushed.

What’s more, future Mac laptops may get displays that respond to touch just like an iOS device. The company has filed for a patent (number 20160098131) for a “force sensor incorporated into a display.” Of course, we already have that on iPhones and iPads, but graphics (shown) accompanying the patent show a laptop, as well.

According to the patent, the force inputs may be detected by measuring changes in capacitance, as measured by surface flex of a device having a flexible touchable surface, causing flex at a compressible gap within the device. A capacitive sensor responsive to changes in distance across the compressible gap. 

The sensor can be positioned above or below, or within, a display element, and above or below, or within, a backlight unit. The device can respond to bending, twisting, or other deformation, to adjust those zero force measurements. The device can use measure of surface flux that appear at positions on the surface not directly the subject of applied force, such as when the user presses on a part of the frame or a surface without capacitive sensors.