Will touch screens kill the keyboard?

Typing more than a few sentences on the virtual keyboard of an iPad or other tablet is a pain in the neck. That experience is about to get a whole lot better.

Thanks to a handful of emerging technologies, virtual touch-screen keyboards are getting closer to the feel of real electromechanical keyboards. Enhancements such as tactile feedback and surfaces that change to mimic physical keys could eventually redefine the virtual keyboard experience for millions of users of devices ranging from smartphones to tablets and touch-screen PCs.

IBM Selectric typewriter

IBM's iconic Selectric, introduced in 1961, set the standard for electric typewriters. Click to view larger image.

Will these improvements be enough for the virtual keyboard to entirely displace the electromechanical keyboard? Maybe not for folks old enough to have used an IBM Selectric typewriter -- whose keyboard served as the model for early computer keyboards -- but improved virtual keyboards may be just fine with a new generation of users for whom big clunky keyboards are so yesterday.

On smartphones, virtual keyboards have largely replaced the more expensive electromechanical keyboards, with a few notable exceptions such as BlackBerries and QWERTY texting phones.

On the PC front, we've seen concept laptops with two displays for some time now, usually with the idea that the bottom screen can be used as a virtual keyboard when needed. And PC vendor Acer recently announced a dual-screen notebook as well, though such devices are still far from mainstream. On PCs used for intensive content creation, however, the physical keyboard is unlikely to go away entirely, although an integrated virtual keyboard is likely to become a complementary component.

The real battleground may be over tablet computers. As users of devices such as the iPad progress from Web surfing and content consumption to a mix of consuming and creating content, demand for better keyboard performance will increase.

RIM 950 Wireless Handheld

Like the RIM 950 Wireless Handheld, introduced in 1998, today's BlackBerry smartphones include electromechanical QWERTY keyboards. Click to view larger image.

Today most iPad users who buy productivity software also reach for Apple's optional external keyboard, says the sales manager at one Apple Store, and about 40% of those who come into that store for iPad training at the Genius Bar bring in or walk out with external keyboards. Tomorrow, though, the touch screen may just be good enough.

Good vibrations

Next-generation touch-screen devices will embed more haptics, or touch-based feedback, into virtual keyboards. Haptic technology uses targeted vibrations to deliver tactile feedback that can vary in frequency, direction and intensity to simulate a key click or to present different surface textures within discrete areas of the display.

When combined with visual and audio input, those finely tuned vibrations, which may be generated by mechanical actuators or electrostatic charges, can fool your brain into thinking that you've just pressed a physical key.

"A lot of companies are really getting into haptics, [using] source feedback and a sense of touch to try to replicate a keyboard on a display," says Bruce Gaunt, a mechanical engineer at Product Development Technologies, which integrates touch screens into cell phones and other devices for manufacturers. "If people really get that down and nail that experience, [virtual keyboards] could replace mechanical keyboards on laptops."

Immersion Corp., which has developed a product that uses a mechanical actuator to deliver haptic feedback on a touch screen, says the next generation of haptics will be able to replicate the feel of key travel as well as the keyboard click of a mechanical keyboard. "You don't get the actual travel of your finger, but you can get much more of it back," says Dennis Sheehan, Immersion's vice president of marketing.

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