Past is prototype: The evolution of the computer keyboard

Uncovering the keyboard's past points us toward its future.

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Today, making a thin laptop with a great keyboard is no easy task. Designers run through a startling amount of math and habit analysis to arrive at very precise distances and positions between keys, which need to be exactly where our brain expects them or we'll type more slowly and make more errors. Meanwhile, ergonomic factors must be weighed against dimensions, weight and other practical design considerations, explains Lenovo's Stewart.

Vizio Thin + Light ultrabook keyboard

Ultrabooks like the Vizio Thin + Light strive for a top-grade keyboard in an ultraslim profile. Credit: © Vizio. Click to view larger image.

Dish-shaped key tops guide the finger to the center of the key, but the concave shape makes it trickier to keep a laptop thin. A keyboard requires a solid foundation, but the additional material for a good base can add weight. The other side of the coin is that reducing the amount of materials in the keyboard frees space for microprocessors and a bigger battery. Stewart calls the sum of all of these design factors a moving target.

Manufacturers are constantly trying to cut costs and make the keyboard smaller -- yet people want a consistency from their keyboards. It's the foundation of their interface with the computer. A company can tweak all the mechanisms or circuitry under the keycap, but if it makes for a poor typing experience, people won't buy the product. Keyboard manufacturers have to weigh the value of innovation against the ergonomic impact.

For now, Stewart believes that range of innovation extends only to the space under the keycap. "With the technology we have today, we think there is a finite limit of being able to create [thin, high-quality keyboards]," he says.

Synaptics ThinTouch keyboard

Synaptics says its new ThinTouch key technology will mean stunningly thin keyboards. Credit: © Synaptics.

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Naturally, a few upstarts are trying to prove Stewart wrong. A company called Pacinian -- bought by touchpad maker Synaptics in June -- wants to replace the scissors and domes with a new type of capacitive sensor. The company hopes to turn its prototypes into a commercial offering by the middle of 2013. Now rebranded as Synaptics' ThinTouch technology, it will have about half the travel of a MacBook Air's keys, according to the company.

For its part, Apple isn't asleep at the wheel; it published a patent for its own super-thin keyboard in February.

Other hardware makers, meanwhile, are working to improve the touch-screen keyboards that Apple itself helped popularize. Touch-typists complain about the lack of physical feedback from onscreen keyboards, so companies such as Immersion are incorporating haptics (targeted vibrations) into displays.

Tactus raised keys on flat screen

Tactus' technology uses microfluidics to provide tactile buttons that rise up from a touch screen's surface. Credit: © Tactus.

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An outfit called Tactus is taking a different approach with microfluidics "buttons" -- essentially small pouches on the surface of the screen that fill with liquid, appearing only when you need to type. When they're not in use, they deflate, leaving a flat surface. Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla is hopeful that his company, like Synaptics, will have something ready for the market by the middle of next year.

Yet even as it looks toward the future, one of Tactus' core technologies is rooted in the past. Ciesla points out that microfluidics has been around for a couple decades in industries like biotech and computer printers. "We're just redeploying it in a novel and unique way," he notes.

Twitch Technologies wraparound keyboards

Will wraparound keyboards like this Twitch concept design provide a comfortable way to type on mobile devices?

Credit: © Twitch Technologies. Click to view larger image.

Moving in a whole different direction, a company called Twitch Technologies is developing add-on products such as a pair of one-handed keyboards that wrap around the left and right edges of tablets. Your fingers type on the back of the device and your thumbs on the front, and you use finger combinations to type letters -- for example, depressing your left pinky and right thumb might get you an A -- rather than one key per letter for the QWERTY layout. (Don't hunt for Twitch's keyboards in stores yet; they're still in the concept stage.)

Reinventing the layout of the keyboard is hard for us to imagine, but even one-handed keyboards with no letters on them have roots in the past. When inventor Doug Englebart gave "The Mother of All Demos" -- introducing myriad computing technologies we still use today, like the mouse and videoconferencing -- he demoed a five-finger chorded keyboard that produced letters with different finger combinations. That was in 1968.

The catch, as Microsoft's Buxton points out, is that when you implement a new keyboard, everyone has to learn to type again. But it may just be worth it.

Caleb Garling is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle covering technology and business. He used to be on the staff of Wired, covering enterprise technology and culture. He has caught a trout barehanded only twice in his life.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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