New MacBook could have killer 'reconfigurable' keyboard

MacBook reconfigurable keyboard
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Forget the Touch Bar: The next MacBook could have a dynamically reconfigurable keyboard, according to a new patent filing.

Spotted by Patently Apple, the filing describes how each key could include its own display, allowing for each key’s label and corresponding input to change according to the user’s needs, which could make some of the best laptops even better.

“The dynamic labels may be generated using dynamically reconfigurable label displaying components such as organic light-emitting diode displays with arrays of pixels, electrophoretic displays with arrays of pixels, or other pixel arrays,” reads the patent description, which was initially filed in December 2019.

Obviously there’s nothing special about changing keyboard inputs, but this would allow the key labels to change on the fly as well. For example, if you wanted to switch between two different languages, you could have the keyboard display swap between the two sets of letters and symbols. Alternatively you could bind keys to perform certain actions in applications or games and set each key to display an appropriate symbol.

MacBook keyboard patent

(Image credit: USPTO)

This vaguely resembles an extension of what Apple’s TouchBar can also already do, but with the added benefit of having physical keys instead of just turning the bottom half of the MacBook into a giant touchscreen. The patent mentions and illustrates a mechanical-style keyswitch and keycap design, so it does sound like the form factor would resemble a standard keyboard, just with little displays in each key.

It’s not just MacBooks, either: the patent illustrations show how such a design could be applied to the standalone keyboards you might use with an iMac, Mac Pro or Mac mini.

Where the MacBook is concerned this does sound like a particularly format-suitable counterpart to (or replacement for) the TouchBar, though there’s no guarantee that we’ll see MacBooks with reconfigurable keyboards in the imminent future. In fact, Apple has been working on this very concept for more than a decade: MacRumors reported on a similar patent filing by Apple, for a keyboard with OLED displays on each key, all the way back in 2008. Some additional refining of the concept might therefore prove necessary.

James Archer

James is currently Hardware Editor at Rock Paper Shotgun, but before that was Audio Editor at Tom’s Guide, where he covered headphones, speakers, soundbars and anything else that intentionally makes noise. A PC enthusiast, he also wrote computing and gaming news for TG, usually relating to how hard it is to find graphics card stock.