Could Apple’s latest patent move point to a virtual keyboard for future MacBooks?


It appears that Apple is still serious about exploring the idea of some kind of fully virtual keyboard for its notebooks – or perhaps an entirely new hybrid device – if a freshly updated patent is anything to go by.

Note that this isn’t a new patent: Apple first filed a patent for a MacBook with a full virtual keyboard way back in 2011, and what Patently Apple has just spotted is a continuation application for that patent which adds new claims, and shows that Tim Cook’s firm is still actively exploring the concept.

One of the updated patent claims now talks of “an electronic device comprising: a housing that forms a reconfigurable input surface configured to receive user touch input in a plurality of different input modes”. 

A further one mentions that said electronic device will have “lighted symbols illuminate a QWERTY keyboard pattern on the reconfigurable input surface in one of the plurality of input modes.”

So is this really further evidence of a potential MacBook toting a virtual keyboard? There are several things to bear in mind here, the first of which is that this is just Apple tweaking a patent, and as we all know, these things don’t necessarily bear any relation to products in actual development.

Virtual insanity?

Then there’s the possible ‘outcry’ aspect to consider – the feelings of the Apple notebook-using community. If you thought that the Touch Bar was a polarizing aspect of the latest MacBook, just imagine the reaction to a full virtual keyboard.

Of course, you could argue that the fact Apple has already taken the step of introducing the Touch Bar to the MacBook shows that it’s really serious about this kind of context-sensitive keyboard wizardry.

And while there are rumors that Apple is indeed planning a dynamic, transforming keyboard for the MacBooks (and its Magic Keyboard) which are launching as soon as next year, those particular keyboards will use e-ink keys that morph into different layouts; there will still be physical keys, and the plan isn’t for a flat virtual keyboard.

Patently Apple’s own theory is that rather than the MacBook, this patenting could pertain to a new hybrid device the company is planning – a fresh spin on the iPad, with another recent patent having been filed for a smart cover sporting a virtual keyboard.

On the hybrid theory, Apple is perhaps drawing some inspiration from the recent Lenovo Yoga Book with its Halo Keyboard, boasting digital capacitive keys with haptic feedback. Here at TechRadar, we were surprised by how accurate we found typing on this device.

Ultimately, though, this is all speculative. Although the hybrid device certainly seems an interesting bet, given that pushing for a full virtual keyboard on the MacBook seems a majorly risky step to take in terms of the community’s reaction. At least in the near future: the e-ink keyboard would appear to be a far more likely prospect for Apple’s notebooks in the shorter term.

Interesting times ahead, that’s for sure…


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