Why you'll love your on-screen keyboard

Apple and Microsoft want to kill your clicky-clacky keyboard and replace it with a smart sheet of glass

Rumors are flying about all-screen tablets from Apple and Microsoft, multitouch desktops and the rise of touch screens in general. Amazing touch screens are everywhere, from the TV news to airport billboard advertising to the cell phones in our pockets.

Someday, and soon, just about everything will work like an iPhone, with software-based multitouch, gestures, physics and 3D serving as the interface for PCs and gadgets of every description. And, of course, the big operating systems players are leading the way.

Microsoft filed a patent last year for a cool way to bring up an on-screen keyboard. Basically, you place the heel of your palm on the screen, plus one or two fingers, and up pops the keyboard, right under your hand. What's great about this is that the location of the keyboard is determined in the same gesture. It's right under your finger, wherever you place it. Specifically, the "J" key is right under your right index finger. You won't even have to worry about where the keyboard is. Just drop your hands and start typing.

The patent also shows a virtual keyboard divided in half, like some ergonomic keyboards. Your hands don't even have to be together -- each has its own half keyboard.

Apple filed an on-screen keyboard patent of its own this week. Apple's technology would recognize all 10 fingers and the palms of the user. The main idea behind the keyboard system is that it combines keyboard functionality with commands to the system. For example, simply double tapping with a finger anywhere is like clicking a mouse. Using different combinations of tapping with more than one finger, which Apple calls "chords" in the patent application, send other commands. The patent also envisions handwriting from the keyboard.

Sounds great! Just one problem. Who the heck wants to type with an on-screen keyboard? You do.

Here's why virtual keyboards are way better than the real thing:

1. It can be customized

With very few exceptions, PC keyboards are dumb pieces of mechanical parts from a bygone era. They're limited in how they can be customized.

Virtual keyboards, on the other hand, are perfectly customizable. For example, you might want a giant keyboard where each key is an inch wide. When you want to select a symbol, rather than a letter, the whole keyboard can change to reflect the symbol options.

It's great for other languages. Chinese, Japanese and Korean users, for example, can punch up wide-ranging keyboard alternatives to specify any of thousands of characters.

And, of course, you can shape your own ergonomic keyboard by bending the whole thing at whatever arch or angle you like, or choose from a whole "app store" full of downloadable virtual keyboards.

2. Haptics

The era of limited, vibrating haptics is coming to a close. A new world of what some in the industry call "high-fidelity haptics" is about to emerge.

As you pass your fingers over the virtual keyboards of tomorrow, an extremely broad vocabulary of sensations will tell you which keys are where. Amazing new haptics technology will trick your mind into feeling textures and bumps and will enable you to differentiate between not only this key and that key, but also where the edges of those keys are. They can also tell you with touch whether you've made an error and provide other subtle feedback.

3. Speed

Most users I've talked to assume that on-screen keyboards are inherently slower than physical keyboards. And that's certainly true of all the virtual keyboards available to most of us. For example, it's well known that iPhone's on-screen keyboard is slower than your typical Blackberry's physical one. However, several factors will make on-screen keyboards faster to use than current physical keyboards.

The main reason the iPhone keyboard is so slow is that it's so small. If you turn it for use in landscape mode, it's faster to type with. Now imagine the iPhone keyboard blown up to be the size of a standard PC keyboard. It would be pretty fast.

The art of predictive typing keeps advancing as well, and it will dramatically improve on-screen typing. The iPhone has limited predictive ability, which guesses the word for you. When you press the space bar, the predicted word is inserted even though you haven't finished typing.

In the future, the software that powers your on-screen keyboard will constantly learn what words you type and in which verbal circumstances, and will be able to predict many words with just a letter or two. As a result, you should be able to type a 1,000-letter scene in your novel by typing, say, 400 letters, with predictive software inserting the rest.

The ability to function with predictive technologies will become a valuable skill to learn, and those who are really good at it will probably shatter typing records.

On-screen keyboards have zero key travel, which is the movement of a physical keyboard key from its up position down to the point where the keystroke is registered. Pressing keys requires force and energy. Once we get used to on-screen keyboards, we will apply that energy to speed, lightly tapping on the glass and moving to the next key.

On-screen keyboards will combine the functionality of today's keyboards with today's mice. Gestures will replace all that pointing and clicking. This approach will give us a performance boost, because all that hand travel to and from the mouse will be eliminated.

4. Hygiene

Your typical PC keyboard harbors 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat, according to researchers. Food drops between the keys. People breathe and sneeze on them. Keyboards are disgusting. (If you don't believe me, use your digital camera's macro and flash functions to capture a well-lit close-up of your own keyboard. Yuck!)

On-screen keyboards eliminate a health hazard from our desks.

5. Upgradability

The PC keyboard hasn't improved since IBM shipped its Model M product 25 years ago. In technology, that's pathetic.

The quality of software-based multi-touch keyboards will start out good and will be improved constantly, just like all other software.

If you forward to the 3:45 point in this video demo by multi-touch designer Jeff Han, you'll see what a 1.0 virtual keyboard on, say, Windows 7 might look like. And then he says something as profound as it is obvious: "There's no reason in this day and age that we should be conforming to a physical device ... We have so much technology nowadays that these interfaces should start conforming to us."

6. Bigger screens

Keyboards are nice. But screen real-estate is even better. By eliminating physical keyboards, we'll be able to do with all our devices what the iPhone did for the cell phone -- increase the screen size.

Instead of keyboards and screens on our desks, giant touch screens will be our desks. I envision most PCs looking like a thin, giant-screen TV placed at an angle like a drafting table. In this configuration, there's no room for a physical keyboard, but scads of screen real estate.

Instead of half of our clamshell laptops being taken up by keyboards and touchpads, the bottom will be a screen, too. That means we can snap it flat, and enjoy both screens together as a single touch-screen tablet double the size.

There's a lot of resistance to on-screen, virtual keyboards out there. But I believe that's because people haven't tried them yet. We've never seen or used a full-size virtual keyboard before, nor experienced the customizability, high-fidelity haptics or predictive typing that will be commonplace in a few years. Skepticism is reasonable.

I believe the skepticism will start to melt next year when Apple's tablet ships. Shortly thereafter, we can expect a wide range of incredible Android tablets, followed by more running Windows, Linux and other operating systems.

I also believe that once you try a full-size, on-screen virtual keyboard using advanced haptics, predictive typing and customizability, you'll happily take your funky, clunky old keyboard to the recycling center and say good-bye to that technology for good.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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