Insiders call it Vallco Parkway. The nondescript building, just a quick hop down 280 from Apple’s Infinite Loop headquarters in Cupertino, houses a nerve center crucial to the fingers of everyone who uses a Macintosh. This is the Input Design Lab, where Apple designs and tests the prototypes for new keyboards, trackpads, and mouses. It’s stuffed with a treasure trove of precision machinery that would make geek hearts patter like a pneumatic drill. Until now, no reporter or press photographer has crossed the threshold. But to mark a new set of iMacs — and perhaps to help implement a spirit of more transparency in the previously locked-down corporation — Apple opened its doors (well, some of them) to Backchannel, and talked about its new iMacs and overall strategy. (See related story: “Why Apple Is Still Sweating the Details on iMac”.) Here’s what we saw.
In a user test lab, Apple puts subjects before keyboards and wires them up to sensors to measure how typing on the unit affects the body. “We do internal user studies, using a wide cross section of people,” says Kate Bergeron, VP for Ecosystem Products and Technologies. (She’s basically Apple’s czar of input devices.) “We monitor muscle fatigue and memory, acoustics, accuracy, and other tests on all the keyboards.”
“Typing precision is a metric we use, as well as how long it takes a user to dial into a new keyboard,” says Bergeron. She claims the new tests show “users adjust to it more quickly and find the center of the keys more accurately.”
We go into a secure space that Bergeron says is one of several “characterization labs.” It’s filled with exotic machinery, most of it customized by Apple to test its equipment. Many of them involve robots methodically clicking, tapping, and mouse-sliding to gauge performance and endurance. The results are analyzed by sophisticated software. “Every new product requires its own test,” she says. “We have to design fixtures so we can test the product. The team does tons and tons of work to try to characterize different designs as quickly as possible.”
The machine above has a tapper — it looks kind of like the little screwdriver that fixes your glasses — that pokes each key cap multiple times. “Every keyboard we ship today is tested on five points, all four corners and the center,” says Bergeron.
Another robot typist tests for endurance. Apple goes up to five million key taps in its tests. The demonstrations we saw were partially staged for our benefit but some were testing units off the assembly line in China. Besides testing its prototypes, Apple also checks to see if the manufactured versions are up to snuff. This keeps the Input Lab pretty busy all year round.
What would a design lab be without a 3D printer? Apple uses its MakerBot to create stuff like custom cradles to hold devices at optimal angles for testing.
Apple tests its mouses and trackpads on different surfaces — glass, metal, melamine, wood, concrete. “We figure out what geometry works on what kind of desk,” says Bergeron. This machine’s robot arm is pushing and pulling a trackpad when the device sits on a wooden platform.
“We iterate a lot to get just the right click,” says John Ternus, VP for Mac, iPad, Ecosystem, and Audio Engineering, “to get the magic experience for the user.”
Each keyboard presents a different challenge for Apple, which customizes the mechanism under the keys for the particular device. In order to see if its schemes work, Apple makes prototypes many times larger than the actual keys — almost like the piano keys that Tom Hanks danced on in the movie Big. If you look closely in the image above at the long table on the left, near the chair, you’ll see those Apple created to test the new keyboard.
In the acoustics room, Apple tests the sounds that its products make. “To get the right touch, you need the right sound,” says Ternus. The room is dominated by a huge anechoic (soundproof) chamber, the central part of a system Apple created to identify the micro-location of a sound. Apple used this extensively with the new Magic Keyboard. “Because of the structural difference between it and the one shipping, this particular keyboard required really intense monitoring and attention to make the mechanism great,” says Bergeron. “In one iteration, the mechanism had a sound we didn’t like. So we actually went in and changed the mechanism material to get to the place where the customer would like the sound.”
When Apple tested its new Magic Trackpad 2, it also had to fine tune the sound. Both the “press click” and the “up click” had to be right. While the acoustic measuring machinery and the sound waves they captured are invaluable, ultimately the right sound must be determined by human beings. “We were sitting around the room and the people who could actually sing — not me — were hitting notes,” says Ternus. “Saying this one’s too high — needs to be down a little. Ultimately the final decision comes from, How do we feel about the sound?”
Our senses, after all, are the ultimate input lab.