“This can be especially true when electronic devices and/or associated input devices are made smaller, thinner, or otherwise reduced in dimension,” the application continues. “Reduced dimensions of keycaps, for example, can lead to keycaps that are less structurally sound and have a shorter lifetime than thicker keycaps made of the same material.”
But there’s one major problem with using glass to make keycaps: Imagine the keys breaking underneath your fingertips, smearing your keyboard with enough blood to be its own crime scene. (No? Just me?)
Based on the patent application alone, it’s unclear what kind of glass Apple would use in its transparent keyboard, or if the company would use a different kind of glass for a Bluetooth Magic Keyboard versus a MacBook one. There are three main types of glass that Apple might choose from:
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But I can’t see any of these types of glass being used. Never mind how much any of these glass materials would drive up the cost of Mac desktops and laptops, the risk of personal injury and breakage is too high. Keycaps are plastic for a reason: It’s much harder to break.
Now, Apple does use strengthened glass on the iPhone, so it may decide to use that for its keycaps. Corning’s Gorilla Glass is annealed glass that has been chemically treated to increase its strength, which makes it about six to eight times stronger than regular annealed glass. But anyone who has ever dropped their iPhone only to have the screen shatter knows it’s not indestructible. Gorilla Glass is not a safety glass, either, and can break off in shards like annealed glass, so may the Apple gods (or AppleCare+) help you if you drop a laptop with Gorilla Glass keycaps.
Another important thing to note about Gorilla Glass’ strengthening process is that it’s not heat-treated like tempered glass, so it can’t be warped. According to Apple’s patent, the company wants to “define a top surface that provides key definition by curvature, texture, ridges, or other external structural features” for its keycaps, which could rule out Gorilla Glass.
However, according to the patent Apple filed, the company is looking into making the keycaps out of glass or a “transparent polymer material,” which includes acrylics, resin, and other plastics. That could mean Apple is really looking into making transparent keycaps, whatever the material. Its patent application is titled “Transparent Keycaps,” and given what we know about the three main types of glass, I highly doubt Apple would ever produce transparent glass keycaps to scale in the future. They could do a few one-offs, like XPG did with its gold-plated keyboard at CES 2019, though that cost $10,000 (but given Apple’s propensity for overcharging for its products, its all-glass keyboard would probably cost that much, too).
But if Apple produces a keyboard with transparent keycaps, we can (finally) welcome the company to the wonderful world of custom PC keyboard keycaps, where many independent artists have been showing their skills for years. A simple Etsy search shows beautiful, clear resin caps with cherry blossoms, mountains, and even Pokemon inside them. And when you pair them with an RGB keyboard, it makes them that much cooler. Apple isn’t inventing anything new here. Inventing something new for their Mac lineup so they potentially could prevent independent artists from making custom Mac keycaps? Sure. But, uh, transparent keycaps are already a thing.
It’s still cheaper to mass produce plastic ones, and if you’ve ever purchased a $200 RGB gaming keyboard I’m sure you appreciate how cost-effective and long lasting plastic is. Also, Apple’s patent includes a process to include a “light-blocking material defining a glyph shape” in the keycaps, which means the glyph would be embedded into the key itself instead of printed on top. Again, welcome to the wonderful world of gaming keyboards, Apple. The Asus ROG Strix Flare that I’m typing on right now has the glyphs embedded into the keys—except with the way that part of the patent application is worded, it seems like the glyph itself would be the opaque part instead of allowing light to shine through. Either way, embedded glyphs have been and are still being done.
Glass keycaps do sound cool, but when you dig into the the main types of glass and their main characteristics—transparency, heat resistance, breakage resistance, etc.—they’re just not all that safe nor economically feasible. If the keys are low profile enough maybe they would, but again, I’m skeptical of Apple claiming that by changing the material of its keycaps it’s going to increase the longevity of its keyboards. It’s the key switches you have to worry about with keyboards, not the keycaps.
And on that note, well, at least Apple finally moved away from its godawful bu
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