Apple’s Latest Patent Would Make Touchpads More Intuitive

Source: Dan Taylor / Flickr

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was issued another new patent on Tuesday. The design replaces the older “click button” trackpad (as seen on Apple’s Macbook) with four force sensors capable of giving users tactile feedback, according to tech website Apple Insider.

The patent, which describes a “touch pad with force sensors and actuator feedback,” offers an improvement over Apple‘s existing trackpad, which is essentially an integrated button that operates using a hinged mechanism located at the edge of the trackpad.

The existing design has a few small problems: the button may require more force depending upon how close the user’s fingers are to the hinged edge of the trackpad, meaning the level of force required is fairly inconsistent, and further, the button design can also interfere with the touchscreen’s sensitivity and therefore operability.

The force sensors described in Apple’s new patent are aligned around the four corners of the trackpad (although there could end up being more sensors in later versions of the design) and may utilize piezoelectric materials manufactured from polymer-metal composites, or polymers filled with nanoparticles, which would generate a voltage proportional to the amount of compression exerted on the trackpad.

Apple Insider reports that the force sensors have several advantages over the existing integrated button design. For one, a touch pad that uses force sensors doesn’t need to pivot in any one direction to operate and doesn’t necessarily need to move at all, since the actuator which accompanies the force sensors in the design can rely on tactile feedback using vibrations.

The force sensor design will also help designers save space in a relatively crowded Macbook chassis — the space reserved to accommodate an integrated button design’s pivoting motion, for instance, will no longer be an issue.

The force sensors described in Apple’s new design are smart enough, however, to mimic a button press so that users who are accustomed to feeling the trackpad move and flex slightly aren’t thrown off by the design change. The actuator attached to the sensors can be programmed to to relay a force to the trackpad’s surface reminiscent of a button press motion; it could even include the requisite “clicking” sound, per the patent.

The design, aside from saving space, is also more intuitive than Apple’s existing integrated button, which essentially operates a little like an “on/off” switch. According to Apple Insider, the new trackpad would be able to measure the application of force the user exerts, allowing the device to better determine what a user intended with any given press.

The patent also describes potential alternative iterations for Apple’s mobile devices, such as for the iPad and iPhone.

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