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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Touch Screen Keyboard that Accommodates You

Ironic that the digital keyboard is so cumbersome to the digits, no? IBM has an idea to fix that—and it involves “anatomical profiling.”

  • July 27, 2011

I have been told, on more than one occasion, that I have “alien fingers.” What is meant by this, I suppose, is that my fingers are uncommonly long and thin. More polite observers of my unusual manual anatomy may comment that I “should have been a piano player”—an observation that sometimes smarts even more, since I took lessons for years, but never got much past a glitchy grade-school performance of Für Elise.

ThickButtons is a project that predicts the set of letters you’re likely to draw from next while typing out a word, enlarging those while shrinking the others. Credit: ThickButtons

The most woeful consequence of my extraterrestrial-like digits, however, is that as a result of them, I have found typing on virtual keyboards (like the one on my iPhone) to be incredibly annoying. Of course, I’m not alone in this—most everyone prefers a physical keyboard to a virtual one. But the challenges of the virtual keyboard tend to be more prevalent among those with unusual fingers—especially fat ones, or short ones, or long ones, or generally misshapen ones. With this in mind, IBM has submitted a patent application that would turn the virtual keyboard’s weakness—its non-physicality—into an asset.

Specifically, according to a patent application first spotted by New Scientist’s Paul Marks, IBM has a notion that virtual keyboards might adapt to each user’s particular anatomy. As the inventors write in their application (first filed in 2009, though only recently published), “as each person has a different physical anatomy in terms of finger size, length, range of motion, efficiency gains could be achieved in terms of speed, ‘comfort’ and error prevention by adapting the keyboard to a user’s unique typing motion paths.”

The full nine-page PDF of the patent application can be read here. In brief, though, following a calibration stage, the keyboard would collect data on the user’s typing habits, making a note of such things as how much surface area of the fingers typically touches the screen, finger position and size, and so on. The device could thus compile an “anatomical profile” of the user, and could compare that profile to those with similar anatomy for cross-referencing.

Using all this data, the keyboard would then subtly and automatically shift to accommodate your own typing style. That “W” key you tend to catch only the top edge of might nudge itself upwards a little. That “U” you routinely hit when you mean to hit “Y” might shrink itself down just a little. The keys would become a tad unmoored from the arrangement we’re familiar with, through subtle shifting of size and position—and in the process, hopefully, you’d be left with a more pleasant tablet or smart-phone experience.

IBM isn’t the only company that’s been mulling this problem. Check out an intriguing video from ThickButtons, which predicts the set of letters you’re likely to draw from next while typing out a word, enlarging those while shrinking the others. Until someone wins this battle, however, my alien fingers and I will continue to prefer the keys on my old-fashioned laptop.

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