Oct 14, 2015

If you’re reading this from a Mac computer, or using an Apple trackpad, keyboard, or mouse, chances are there is more research, testing, and technology at your fingertips than you ever thought possible. Tucked away in a nondescript building known as Vallco Parkway, the Sillicon Valley Giant houses one of the most advanced and secretive prototype testing labs, where a host of precision machinery, 3D printers, robotics and researchers diligently ensure that every single aspect of their keyboards, mouses and trackpads—from their look, feel and even ‘clicking’ sound— will affect you exactly as they’re meant to.

In a Willy Wonka-esque move, the notoriously secretive company opened up the Vallco Parkway Input Lab to reporters from Backchannel for the very first time; perhaps in an effort to market their latest Magic Mouse, perhaps to demonstrate a more transparent process. In doing so they revealed just how seriously Apple takes product testing, and how 3D printing technology helps them ensure that only the best possible products makes their way into our hands.

While much of the machinery in the Input Lab is customized by Apple to test its equipment, including a range of tapping, clicking, and mouse-sliding robots, some other machines will be very familiar to readers of 3Ders.org. These include an Ultimaker 2 3D printer, used for creating taller-than-average prints, and a series of MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers all lined up in a row. Together, these 3D printers can rapidly manufacture custom cradles or other structures designed to hold devices at optimal angles in order to test friction.

In addition to the 3D printers, the Input Lab houses a user test lab, where users are attached to keyboards via wires in order to monitor muscle fatigue, memory and accuracy. In other areas, Apple tests its mouses and trackpads on different surfaces, such as glass, metal, melamine, wood and concrete to see how they perform. A specialized acoustics lab, outfitted by a huge soundproof chamber, has the sole purpose of making sure that depending on how your click or tap a keyboard or mouse, the sound changes appropriately. “We iterate a lot to get just the right click,” said John Ternus, VP for Mac, iPad, Ecosystem, and Audio Engineering, “to get the magic experience for the user.”

While all of this clicking and testing may seem like overkill, it’s justifiable when you consider consumer loyalty to the Apple brand—and surely many other hardware developers use similar labs to fine-tune their products as well. These aren’t just tools to get a job done; they are tools that are tested and refined by both human and computer standards until each click, glide, tap and swipe feels as natural and satisfying as if we had been doing it all our lives. By opening up their lab to the public, Apple has perhaps revealed less about their own production process, and more about just how important and deeply ingrained robotic and 3D printing technologies are in our daily activities—right down to what we hear when we click a mouse.




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