Computer keyboards haven’t really changed that much over the decades. Some keys have grown additional functions and the Fn and Ctrl keys on laptops keep switching places but that standard set of keys and their arrangements are pretty much set in stone. That makes it difficult and even wasteful to have different keyboard layouts and different languages, as different models have to be made for different kinds of keyboards. Sure, you can configure a key to produce something different but what’s printed on the keycap remains the same, at least until Apple makes its latest patent a reality.
The figures printed on each key is more or less permanent, regardless of whether they actually map to the letter or action they represent. You could also use one of those keyboards with blank keys but that requires you to memorize what each key is for. It would definitely be nice if you could change a key’s function on the go while also changing what’s displayed on its label.
That’s exactly the idea that Apple was going for in a recently awarded patent. In a nutshell, each key has its own display, like the MacBook Pro Touch Bar, that can be programmed to use a different letter on the fly. This would make it easier to change keyboard layouts or even languages using the same keyboard, saving up materials and money in making separate keyboards to support those use cases.
The idea of a keyboard that can change its display isn’t exactly new but what makes Apple’s patent unique is that it is meant to work with existing keyboard switches. The key itself may be made from plastic, metal, glass, or even sapphire but they can also be used with the likes of scissor switches found on Apple’s MacBooks.
Of course, a patent is merely a declaration of possessing an idea with a probable intent to use it in the future. Whether Apple will put that into action will still depend on whether it has the materials and technology to actually make it happen.