One Button Is One Too Many: Apple Applies For Patent On Invisible Controls

Steve Jobs has been on a quest to rid the world of buttons since the original Macintosh debuted sans numeric keypad. In later years, we've seen the G4 Cube (with its touch-sensitive power-on area, as opposed to a physical button), the Apple Pro Mouse (sometimes known as the zero-button mouse), and most recently the iPhone/iPad with their single button.

If you thought one button was as low as any practical device could go, you were wrong. Apple has filed a patent application, 20100103116, for a "Disappearing Button or slider." The abstract reads:
An input device is disclosed. The input is a deflection based capacitive sensing input. Deflection of a metal fame of the input device causes a change in capacitance that is used to control a function of an electrical device. The input appears invisible because it is made of the same material as the housing it is contained in. Invisible backlit holes may make the input selectively visible or invisible to the user.
Apple's illustration of the implementation clears everything up.

Ok, maybe not. Let's parse that a bit with help from the patent app. In the diagram above, the buttons that control the function of 5010, 5012, 5014, and 5016 are all invisible. Controlling the laptop's music playback would simply require that the end-user tap the areas of the wrist rest associated with play, stop, rewind, fast forward, etc. The specific areas to touch could be lit or etched—Apple's patent app covers the implementation of a button-free control system, not the literal removal of any indicator that a control exists.

It's an artistic vision that lends itself well to the conceptualization of some really sexy, futuristic gadgets, but fine-tuning the practical function of such an interface could be a nightmare. Consider the iPhone's single button (we'll ignore the top and side pads for now). Reach into a pocket for your phone, and the location of that button tells you which direction the phone is oriented. If you know where the button is, you can run your thumb across the virtual slider used for answering a call without ever actually looking at the handset. Remove that shallow depression, and it's more difficult to control the iPhone by touch.

We'll be curious to see if Apple is granted the patent and how the company puts it to use. The idea of a built-in, seamless iPod control panel, as part of a laptop is pretty sexy and a mouse with capacitive buttons might make Steve a happy man for the first time since the original Mac hit market.