Over the years there's been a wide variety of keyboards that have come to market. Some have been weird, others practical and of course there's always the outrageously expensive ones for the rich and famous. Of late we've all seen the new Chiclet-styled keyboard from Apple for the desktop along with various virtual keyboards found on tablets. While virtual keyboards offer us great versatility, traditional Keyboards offer power users that needed tactile feedback that's perfect for long stretches of work. So wouldn't it be nice to have the best of both worlds? Well, yes it would and a new Microsoft patent that surfaced last week actually shows us that a hybrid solution is in the works. It's even imaginative – in that printed keys could be a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future. Our report details what Microsoft has up their sleeve for next generation keyboards for the desktop – and you just might find that their ideas are untraditionally creative. Whether you're a gamer, blogger or even a CAD designer, Microsoft might have the perfect solution for taking our old tired keyboards to the next level.
Microsoft's Patent Background
Computer peripherals are continually being refined to expand functionality and provide quality user experiences. One area of improvement has been to provide peripheral devices that combine keyboard-type input functionality with the ability to display output to the user. In many cases, this is implemented by providing a keyboard with a display region that is spatially separate from the keys. For example, in a conventional keyboard layout, a rectangular liquid crystal display (LCD) can be situated above the function keys or number pad.
Another approach to combining input and output capability in a peripheral device is the use of a virtual keyboard on a touch interactive display. In this case, the display capability is provided directly on the keys: each key typically is displayed by the touch interactive display with a legend or symbol that indicates its function. The virtual keyboard approach has many benefits, including the ability to dynamically change the display for each key.
Interactive touch displays are often less desirable, however, from a pure input standpoint. Specifically, touch displays do not have mechanically-depressible keys, which can provide a more, responsive and agreeable typing experience. On the other hand, mechanical keyboards do not provide the visual interactivity that is increasingly being expected in connection with computer peripherals.
Microsoft's Proposed Solution
The present application is directed to a keyboard with viewable output display capability. The keyboard includes a display device, a plurality of keys situated over the display device, with each of the keys being mechanically depressible so that the key is reciprocally movable toward and away from the display device. Furthermore, each of the keys is configured to permit image light from the display device to pass through the key.
The keyboard also includes an electrical trace network underneath the keys and formed at least in part from a transparent conductive material to permit image light from the display device to pass through the electrical trace network. The electrical trace network is operable, for each of the plurality of keys, to produce an electrical signal associated with the key in response to depression of the key toward the display device.
In this way, the electrical trace network may be provided in the keyboard to enable detection of key input without interfering with imagery that may be projected through the electrical traces. Therefore, in some examples the viewing area through the keycaps may be increased when an at least partially transparent electrical trace network is used.
Printed Keys Could be a Thing of the Past
Microsoft's patent FIG. 1 shown below depicts an exemplary computing system including a keyboard that provides the ability to display output in connection with the keys of the keyboard.
As indicated by the "Q", "W", "E", "R", "T", "Y", etc., on keys 28 (FIGS. 1 and 2), it will often be desirable that keyboard 26 be configured to provide conventional alphanumeric input capability. To simplify the illustration, many keys of FIGS. 1 and 2 are shown without indicia, though it will be appreciated that a label or display will often be included for each key.
In addition to or instead of the well-known "QWERTY" formulation, keys 28 of the keyboard may be variously configured to provide other inputs. Keys may be assigned, for example, to provide functionality for various languages and alphabets, and/or to activate other input commands for controlling the computer system (20).
The Keyboard (26) can provide a wide variety of displayable output. In some examples, the keyboard causes a display of viewable output on or near the individual keys 28 to indicate key function. This can be seen in FIGS. 1 and 2, where instead of keys with letters painted, printed or etched onto a keycap surface, a display mechanism (e.g., an LCD device situated under the keys) is used to display the "Q", "W", etc., functions of the keys.
This dynamic and programmable display capability facilitates potential use of the keyboard in a variety of different ways. For example, the English-based keyboard described above could be alternately mapped to provide letters in alphabetical order instead of the conventional "QWERTY" formulation, and the display for each key could then be easily changed to reflect the different key assignments.
The keys of the keyboard may be made of glass, though other materials are presented for consideration such as transparent conductive polymer and others.
Could be programmed to Add Specific Program Functions
In some implementations, the key functions may adapt and/or change dynamically, for example in response to the changing operational context of software running on computing system. For example, upon pressing of an "ALT" key, operation of a key that otherwise is used to enter the letter "F" might instead result in activation of a "File" menu in a software application. Generally, it will be understood that the keys in the present examples may be selectively depressed to produce any type of input signal for controlling a computing device.
Microsoft's patent FIG. 2, illustrates a keyboard include an underlying display device 40 and a keyboard module 42 disposed over and secured to the display device.
Integrating Touch, Machine Vision and/or Gesture-Based Interactivity Capabilities
Also, in addition to display provided on or near keys 28, display functionality may be provided in other areas, for example in an area 32 located above keys. Still further, area 32 or other portions of the keyboard may be provided with touch or gesture-based interactivity in addition to the keyboard-type input provided by the keys. For example, area 32 may be implemented as an interactive touchscreen display, via capacitive-based technology, resistive-based technology, or other suitable methods. Also, as described elsewhere herein, the portion of the device that underlies the keyboard may also include capabilities in addition to display, including touch sensitivity, machine vision (OCR, Smart Cameras etc) and the like.
Changing the Function of Individual Keys
Microsoft's patent FIG. 3 shown below provides further illustration of how the display capability of the keyboard may be employed in connection with an individual key (29). In particular, as shown respectively at times T0, T1, T2, etc., the display output associated with the key 29 may be changed, for example to reflect the input command produced by depressing the key. However, as previously mentioned, the viewable output provided by the keyboard may take forms other than displays associated with individual keys and their input functionality.
Alternative Interchangeable Templates
A secondary Microsoft patent on this subject presents another twist. Here, we see patent FIG. 5 below which shows us an exemplary keyboard kit 16 of differently-configured keyboard modules (502, 504, and 506). Each keyboard module may be secured to the underlying display device which we present to you in patent FIGS. 6 and 7 further below. The keyboard modules may differ with respect to a physical layout of keys. Physical layouts may differ in the number and placement of keys, in sizes and shapes of keys, in the overall footprint of the keyboard module, etc.
In some cases, a given physical layout may be in accordance with different geographically-associated standards or localizations. For example, the layout of the keys included in the keyboard module 502 may be in accordance with a generally accepted keyboard layout in the United States. Additionally, the layout of the keys included in the exemplary keyboard module 504 may be in accordance with a generally-accepted keyboard layout in Brazil. In this way, a first keyboard module, included in keyboard kit 16, has a key layout in accordance with a first geographic standard and a second keyboard module, included in the keyboard kit, has a key layout in accordance with a second geographic standard.
It will be appreciated that numerous other keyboard layouts in accordance with other geographic standards may be provided in keyboard kit 16. In this way, the keyboard kit can be marketed in a multitude of regions around the world, while utilizing a common display device. Furthermore, keyboard modules 502 and 504 may have a key layout for conventional typing operations and alphanumeric character entry.
Gaming, CAD & Accounting Keyboard Modules
Other keyboard modules may be designed for other purposes, such as specific software applications. For example, keyboard module 506 is designed for use with a gaming application. As shown, the physical layout of the keys is designed to enhance game play of a gaming application. For example, the layout of the keys may enable rapid execution of commands frequently used during game play.
Other types of keyboard modules that may be in the keyboard kit include a computer-aided design (CAD) keyboard module designed for use with computer-aided design applications and/or a numerical entry keyboard module designed for use with accounting or other types of bookkeeping applications.
Ergonomic Keyboard Modules
Other keyboard modules may be designed with particular attention to ergonomic considerations; for example, keyboard kit 16 may include a keyboard module having a split configuration, in which one half of the keys are provided in a left-hand group that is situated at a different angle than a right-hand group of keys, thereby providing a biomechanically-enhanced design, decreasing the likelihood of an end user developing repetitive strain injuries (RSI). The keyboard kit enables a user to quickly and easily swap out keyboard layouts designed for specific software programs.
Default Display Settings for Each Module
In some examples, a default display setting may be provided for each keyboard module. For instance, the underlying display device may detect attachment of a specific type of keyboard module. In response to the detection, the underlying display device may provide a default display output associated with the type of keyboard module that was detected. The default display output may include predetermined imagery (e.g., alphanumeric symbols, graphics, etc.) corresponding to the keys on the keyboard module.
To keep costs down, the snap-in style module design appears to be the method of choice – though securing the modules with light magnets would have been a better longer term solution. Maybe they'll rethink that aspect of the design. Time will tell.
At the End of the Day
At the end of the day, Microsoft has some rather interesting ideas for a next generation desktop keyboard. Of course it's just a plan on paper at the moment, but that's where all great ideas begin. Like always, Microsoft is going to have to hurry to get this to market because Apple (1, 2, 3 & 4) and others are pushing ahead on this front as well. We're now in a new device era where ideas live and die in the blink of an eye. Will Microsoft win this race? Only time will tell.
Microsoft's patent application was originally filed in Q3 2010 and published by the US Patent and Trademark Office last week.
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