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New Patent Reveals Possible Scrollable Menus in OS X Lion

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A new patent spotted by the keen watchers at Patently Apple reveals innovative new methods of menu navigation that could see introduction in Mac OS X Lion (s aapl). The new scrollable menu and toolbar patents describe interface elements that are perfectly suited to touch input, something central to both iOS and OS X according to Apple.

A Single, Scrollable Button

The scrollable menus would provide contextually-sensitive commands right where a user needs them, and would minimize the amount of screen real estate taken up by menu bars, toolboxes and palettes. Essentially, you’d see a command displayed somewhere on your screen. Tapping that command would execute the function, but scrolling on your trackpad or touchscreen (depending on whether you’re using OS X or iOS) would allow you to cycle through various commands.

So, for example, you could scroll to “Save” and “Print” instead of accessing them through a drop down as you do currently via the OS X menu bar. Menu items could be displayed as either icons or text, and could be nested hierarchically, providing full access to even the most complicated menu systems.

Like Stacks for Menu Commands

The patent also describes other alternate scrolling configurations. Commands could fan out in a semi-circle or column, for example, or some combination of both for multiple levels of menu items. With touch input, it would be incredibly user friendly, while also keeping unnecessary commands out of sight most of the time, giving you as unfettered a view as possible. It’s an implementation that makes a lot of sense in tandem with Apple’s move to full-screen OS X apps, as seen in iLife ’11.

The iOS/OS X Divide Narrows

On iOS, scrollable menus would seems just a logical extension of the technologies already in place. In OS X, it does seem like users who still prefer traditional input devices would feel a little awkward using scrollable menus with a mouse and keyboard. But I wouldn’t be surprised if these new interface elements did make an appearance in OS X Lion, since they seem to be fairly complete in terms of concept and design, and Apple is definitely looking to encourage more iOS feel in its next major OS upgrade, something which a cleaner interface would definitely provide.

Readers who are familiar with AutoDesk’s Sketchbook Pro will recognize a certain similarity between what this new patent describes and the brush menus used in that program. I found it worked great while using a Wacom tablet on a Mac, so I’m looking forward to seeing it applied throughout OS X in general. How about you?

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