Forward-looking: On Friday, the US Patent and Trademark Office released a patent application from Apple for a new kind of haptic system using something it calls “a static pattern electrostatic haptic electrode.” The innovation proposes to make on-screen virtual keyboards feel more realistic.
The way the patent describes it as working is the electrodes are disposed on a surface, in particular, a display showing a virtual keyboard. Each key would have one or more of its own electrodes, which emit static patterns. The charge would have varying densities with voids (no charge) between keys. In other words, the static in the center of the key would be weakest while growing stronger toward the edge with a gap of no charge in between keys.
The electrodes would be able to change polarity to either attract or repel the surface of your finger. So that keys would not only feel mechanical when pressed but could also create a sensation of friction and texture. Combined with haptic motors, the effect could feel very realistic. In theory, one would be able to touch type using such a device.
It is worth mentioning that just because Apple has applied for a patent does not mean that we will see this technology any time soon, if at all. The application is still pending, and as far as anybody knows, Apple has not even created a prototype of the electrode yet, let alone a virtual keyboard using them.
That said, Apple is not unfamiliar with creating realistic haptic feedback. The MacBook’s Force Touch trackpad is a case in point. The newer MacBooks have a solid-state touchpad that you would swear is mechanical. Beneath the pad is Apple's Taptic Engine, which senses your finger pressure. This triggers a haptic motor that issues a tactile and audible click.
When combined with the appropriate on-screen visual actions (opening a menu, for example), it creates a very real-feeling illusion that you are clicking something mechanical. You can test to see that this is true by shutting down the Mac and trying to get the trackpad to click.
Apple’s patent does not look like something that would be used on an iPhone as the keyboard is too small to feel real. An iPad seems more likely. It may even lead to a dual-screen MacBook similar to Microsoft’s upcoming Surface Neo. Only instead of having an integrated Bluetooth keyboard, it could have a realistic virtual one instead. They just need to figure out something more catchy than "static pattern electrostatic haptic electrode" keyboard.