Apple just can’t seem to 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 that have mini displays.
The patent describes a keyboard where each key has a perforated keycap that would reveal illumination from an “array of lights” underneath. Essentially, this keyboard would have keys fitted with micro-LEDs or OLEDs to show the letter or symbol that identifies the key. It’s not unlike the Touch Bar but for each individual key.
The way MacBook keyboards are implemented now involves black plastic keys with cutouts of the designated letter or symbols, and a backlight to illuminate the keys in low light (the backlight also bleeds through the surrounding cutout of the key). The keyboard in Apple’s patent not only allows for just the key character to be lit, but it could also allow for the key character to change based on a user’s preference. For example, the keyboard could switch between English and, say, Korean characters, or show a completely unique set of keys based on the app you’re using.
Art. Lebedev Studio
Apple’s patent explains the keyboard uses its current scissor-switch mechanism (whew), and it’s possible that 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 does seem quite feasible, useful, and extremely cool, it could also be pricey to implement.
Way back in 2007, Art. Lebedev Studio created the Optimus Maximus desktop keyboard that used OLEDs in its keycaps to display the key characters and it was priced at $1,600. A lot has changed over the past 15 years, however, and OLED displays have become way more affordable. However, it’s still bound to be more expensive than the plastic keys Apple used on its MacBooks now.