Apple just can’t leave its laptop keyboards alone. While some of us are still recovering from the MacBook butterfly keyboard debacle of the 2010s and basking in the return of the function keys on the MacBook Pro, Apple has already moved on to the next big thing. According to a recent patent filing reported by Patently Apple, Apple is experimenting with keys with mini displays.
The patent describes a keyboard where each key has a perforated keycap that would reveal illumination from a “series of lights” below. Essentially, this keyboard would have keys equipped with micro-LEDs or OLEDs to display the letter or symbol that identifies the key. It’s no different than the Touch Bar, but for each individual key.
The way MacBook keyboards are now implemented includes black plastic keys with cutouts of the indicated letter or symbols, and backlighting to illuminate the keys in low light (the backlight also shines through the key’s surrounding cutout). Not only does the keyboard in Apple’s patent allow only the key character to be lit, but it can also allow the key character to change based on a user’s preference. For example, the keyboard can switch between English and, say, Korean characters, or display a completely unique set of keys based on the app you’re using.
Art. Lebedev studio
Apple’s patent explains that the keyboard uses the current scissor switch mechanism (whew), and it’s possible the company could use aluminum instead of plastic for the keycaps. Apple is constantly filing patents, many of which are never actually produced for the general public. While this patent in particular seems quite feasible, useful, and extremely cool, it can also be pricey to implement.
Long ago, in 2007, art. Lebedev Studio created the Optimus Maximus desktop keyboard that used OLEDs in its keycaps to display key characters and it cost $1,600. However, a lot has changed in the last 15 years and OLED screens have become much more affordable. However, it will still be more expensive than the plastic keys that Apple now used on its MacBooks.