Google wants to kill touchpads on laptop and tablet keyboards, says its patent

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński

Touchpad is a very common feature of a laptop. It was first introduced in the Apple’s PowerBook 500 laptop 25 years back. The touchpad has become very successful and is the popular method for cursor operations. Now Google has an idea. Get rid of the touchpad and use the spacebar instead. Google was granted a patent for this on January 8th, 2019.   

The patent which was granted by the USPTO talks about a spacebar which functions also as a touchpad. This makes the touchpad space completely empty. Look at the figures from the patent below:

Credit: The USPTO

The patent says that the invention can be used in laptop or netbook keyboards and also in the keyboard accessory for tablets and smartphones. This invention smartly determines user’s intention of pressing the spacebar.

The spacebar functions either as a normal spacebar key or a touchpad depending on the movement of the object touching it. The surface of the spacebar is touch sensitive having capacitive or resistive sensors. It detects a touch on its surface by an object such as a finger, stylus etc. If the finger moves at least a threshold distance, then the spacebar considers it as a touchpad input. That means the spacebar is now active as a touchpad. Else, the spacebar is not active as a touchpad.

The patent document says,

“The touchpad may be active if an object is detected on or near a surface of the spacebar and the object moves more than a threshold distance. If the movement is shorter than the threshold distance, then the trackpad will not be active. In one example, the threshold distance for an object to move is at least 2 mm. In other examples, the threshold distance may be a different value.”

From the patent

Once it is determined that the spacebar is active as a touchpad, the type of gesture is determined by the gesture library. Various types of gestures (single finger gesture, two finger gesture etc.) could be used for different functions such as a shortcut key, launching an application, playing and pausing music, minimizing and maximizing window, moving back and forward during a presentation, left mouse click, right mouse click, moue drag, mouse double click, scrolling, text selection etc.

If the spacebar is not active as a touchpad, then it will function only as a spacebar key. If it is pressed during text editing, a space is entered.

To summarize the invention, a touch is detected on the spacebar and is determined whether the touchpad is active. If the touchpad is active, then the type of gesture is determined by the gesture library. If the touchpad is not active, then the touch is determined as a spacebar key press.

The following figure from the patent shows an example flow diagram of the process:

Credit: The USPTO

The Pixel C keyboard from Google does not have a touchpad. It looks exactly similar to the keyboard shown in the patent. But its spacebar is just like a normal button and is not touch sensitive. The Pixel C keyboard is used as an accessory for the Google’s Pixel C tablet. Google stopped selling it in December 2017.

Google Pixel C keyboard in comparison with the patent image

Google released Pixel Slate tablet in 2018 by adding the touchpad to its keyboard. Google Pixelbook 2 also comes with a touchpad and does not implement the invention of this patent.

We need to wait and see if this invention actually gets incorporated into Chromebooks and Google’s tablets.

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