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Art Lebedev's Optimus keyboard (now the Optimus Maximus) has been around in various incarnations for a few years now, with the full-size version having been released on March 15 of last year (2007, in case you're still getting used to the 2008 thing). But just two days before its official (re-) release, Apple filed a patent application for a dynamically controlled keyboard, the contents of which were published yesterday.
At first glance, the invention described in Apple's patent looks quite a bit like the Optimus Maximus. The patent describes a method for changing what is displayed on a keyboard's keys by putting OLEDs (organic LEDs) and circuitry in each key. The various OLEDs could be turned on and off, leading to different images being displayed on the keys. Applications would then tell the keyboard what to display on each key, depending on what the user was doing at the time. Imagine a "play" button being displayed on the spacebar while in iTunes, which would change to a "pause" symbol after pressing play, and you've got the basic idea.
This type of keyboard would really shine for media work, since applications like Photoshop, Logic, and Final Cut could be significantly simplified by displaying more information about (and on) each key. And while the Optimus Maximus is a bit expensive, Apple could certainly mass-produce something similar for less money, perhaps bringing the price into reality for most users. Lebedev has, however, apparently applied for several patents for the Optimus, so it's unclear just what Apple is up to, or what would happen if the company were ever to release such a product. I wouldn't count on seeing this anytime soon, but a guy can dream, right?