Apple's patent applications often reveal tech gems that end up in real devices, which is why a newly-surfaced touchscreen interface patent is gathering some attention. It's for a full-hand touch-sensitive device--basically the iTablet.
The application was filed in June, and it describes an incredibly sophisticated touch-control interface that mixes keyboard and mouse functionality into a single device. Apple's words suggest it'll offer an "unprecedented" hybrid input device for "typing, resting, pointing, scrolling, 3D manipulation and handwriting"--which are the essential features of how one would interact with an advanced tablet PC. It works by extremely clever processing to work out what the user intends, so that it can ignore accidental touches from the user and correctly interpret gestures and keyboard actions.
Apple's current crop of large-size touchpads, which are built into MacBooks, are smart enough to cope with up to four-finger gestures and tap-controls. But the patented device's input touchpad would be able to detect contact from all ten fingertips, main finger parts and palms. It would also be able to cope with different hand sizes, and be able to detect finger gestures while the user's hand is resting on the surface--basically how many of us type (though for good ergonomics, we probably shouldn't).
Apple acknowledges that there are pre-existing designs for combining a keyboard and mouse-pointer actions, but it argues that these are non-optimal--particularly in-keyboard solutions like IBM's weird little mouse-nubbin, which makes the keyboard more complex. Apple's solution seems to be to do away with the concept of a separate physical keyboard and mouse, and use a giant touchpad.
Is Apple giving away how users will use its fabled iTablet? It's a distinct possibility, given that a full-touchscreen, no-keyboard device would need to have a much more sophisticated touch interface than that presented by the full-touchscreen iPhone. The controls that this patent describes are also more complex than those detailed in Microsoft's Courier tablet and indeed Apple's own 1987 tablet concept--the patent notes that both stylus control and voice control can't cope with the "dynamic" needs of many users. This patent could, in fact, be taken as the most positive confirmation of the reality of the iTablet yet.