updated 04:04 pm EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
Could significantly change interaction with touchpad
A pair of patents awarded to Apple recently may suggest forthcoming enhancements or new products, though the company often patents items it may not use in products for years, if ever. One such filing, called "Illuminated Touchpad" suggests that Apple may be considering using light effects to illuminate touches in products such as a future version of the Magic Trackpad. The company has also won a patent on a method for bringing up tool options (in, for example, a digital illustration program) using gestures.
The gesture patent, which also works with traditional desktop commands, is complex and wide-ranging in nature, but Patently Apple has interpreted it to cover a possible future program that would combine drawing and vector illustration (a la Illustrator) as well as pixel editing like Photoshop. It's not clear that Apple is actually developing such a program but has several building blocks in place if it wanted to do so. The company has previously won patents for a radial menu that appears contextually around a tool.
The patent covers the use of gestures to bring up the contextual tool menu on trackpads, touchscreens or mouses. From this, the site has extrapolated that any program that could be developed around the concept would be able to work similarly on both iPads and Macs.
The backlit trackpad patent appears to be an expanded version of a concept originally developed for the iPod. The lighting would appear to serve a functional purpose beyond simple illumination in dark rooms, and may give the user visual feedback on the gesture, for example a light that appears under the user's finger and leaves a "trail" showing the movement.
Such feedback would be helpful for any signature or drawing uses, and could even be expanded to include color changing or brightness variance to suggest pressure levels. AppleInsider, which uncovered the patent filing, also suggest that illumination could also be used to teach users where or how to make gestures effectively by demonstrating where to put fingers before the gesture is actually applied. Using lighting cues, the trackpad could even be transformed into another tool, for example turning into a calculator with zones for each function.
The trackpad patent is dependent on being able to provide inexpensive but durable LED technology to power it, though the patent also discusses the possibility of using OLED or LCD technology, similar to the touchpad used on the iPod Touch. The latter options would be much more expensive, indicating that Apple is planning to wait until it can find an affordable alternative before bringing this particular concept to market.