Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Are Keyboards on Laptops the Next Thing to Go?

Infinitely re-configurable virtual keyboards with haptic feedback could do everything conventional input devices do – and so much more

  • August 15, 2011

The one thing that differentiates a laptop from a tablet – a keyboard – could be on its way to the dustbin of history, contends long-time Mac columnist Andy Ihnatko. If you don’t believe him, witness Exhibit A in the war on a technology first perfected more than a hundred and thirty years ago: The haptic display.

Apple’s patent on a virtual keyboard with haptics portends a future in which physical keys lose their advantage

Apple patented their own version of a haptic display that shows – what else – a full-size keyboard. The general idea is that it should be possible to use tiny vibrating motors to fool fingers into thinking that they’re touching a physical keyboard. Working prototypes designed for mobile phones already exist, like Immersion’s TouchSense technology.

Acer’s Iconia dual-screen tablet lacks haptics, but is it a reasonable facsimile of the future of laptops?

A laptop with a fully virtual keyboard would resemble what’s known as a folio computer. Basically: two tablets connected with a hinge. Acer’s already rolled one out, with their Iconia dual-screen tablet. Problem is, typing without a physical or a sophisticated-enough virtual keyboard remains a pain.

Acer’s got at least one thing right, however: replacing a keyboard with a fully virtual interface allows you to change control modalities as easily as you switch desktop backgrounds. Imagine a future in which every application developer has the freedom to create their own custom interface metaphor: a mix of any combination of gestures, drawing tools and buttons.

Ironically, this would represent a return to exactly the sort of physical interfaces we left behind when we moved to computers in the first place. Consistent, customized interfaces that feel like the real thing – switches, buttons, charcoal on paper, whatever – could engage our proprioceptive sense and spatial memory in a way that current interfaces do not.

So before we lament the death of the keyboard, we should ask ourselves whether making it the primary means of engaging with the world was a good idea in the first place.

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