The ultimate keyboard

Ironically enough, since I began thinking of this blog (and I set for the name and main concept months ago), I never thought I would post something on keyboards. Well on computer keyboards, I mean.

And yet, here I am. A single link I was sent today lead to this great – well, you will actually be judge on that part – long post.

Ah, keyboards! Dozens of them! QWERTYs, AZERTYs, QWERTZs are those I am most used to. Sometimes, you’d wish you had only one peripheral, but this seems hardly possible able to adapt to all situations. “One to rule them all.” But this hardly seems possible.

Or is it?

Optimus: context-aware layout

Sometimes, you wish you could display another layout on your keyboard. Let’s say, you have an AZERTY keyboard but the current application supports only QWERTYs and you don’t know that layout (Half-Life did help me learn the basics of the QWERTY layout).

Or even worse: you would like cyrillic or greek Alphabet.

Well, the Optimus keyboard actually provided a solution to this problem a few years ago already.

The enter key on an Optimus keyboard

To sum up the concept, each key of the keyboard is a little screen, that can therefore be made to display anything. Not only roman letters, mind you. Cyrillic and greek alphabets can be displayed.

But icons also. Imagine you use this keyboard with a photo-editing application. You can configure your keys to display the tools they are shortcuts for. Or in a game: display actions on your keys.

I will not go through all possible uses, the Optimus keyboard‘s and its descendants’ website is plain enough.


Getting rid of legacy

Why are the keys disposed the way they are on a keyboard? I guess most of you already know, but as a refresher, they are the legacy from mechanical typewriters.

Type Writing Machine, 1898. Thomas Oliver. U.S. Patent 599,863.

Each key was mechanically linked to a character with a metal rod which, of course, could not overlap over others.

As a consequence, the keys had to be shifted from a row to another. This gave birth to the well-known disposition all keyboards now have.

All? No! TypeMatrix proposes an alternative disposition.


TypeMatrix 2030 keyboard
TypeMatrix 2030 keyboard

Yes, that’s right! An orthogonal keyboard. Straight lines of keys. I did not have the opportunity to try it out myself but the people I know who did adopted it and actually complain when they have to use a “classical” keyboard.

Layout adaptability again

“Yes, but layout is a problem a again”, might you say. And you would be wrong: TypeMatrix has a solution too. They provide skins.

TypeMatrix skins
TypeMatrix skins

There are some advantages:

  • You can switch layout just by switching the skin, thus being able to use your keyboard on any computer, which can be really practical once you get used to the orthogonal disposition.
  • A skin!! No crumbs or dust getting under the keys. You need to clean your keyboard? Take out the skin and rinse it with water…
  • Are you a prankster? Do you know the place of each keys by heart? You can choose a white keyboard or skin and you will be the only one able to use it.

Again, more information on the constructor’s website.

The touchscreens, a new era

Free! We are free!

Need I really go through this? A simple example: properly set, your smartphone keyboard can easily switch from QWERTY to Cyrillic, for instance (I personally experienced with Android and iOS).

Why could not we? The keyboard is merely displayed on a screen. It can take any shape we want it to.

Optimus – I already spoke of them above – of course understood this principle and applied it to the concept of the Optimus Tactus: the peripheral is a touchscreen which can be used as a such or as a programmable keyboard.

Optimus Tactus, video mode
Optimus Tactus, video mode

Getting rid of legacy, the return

Here, I will focus on smartphones: why must keyboards on smartphones have the same disposition as typewriters? Devices change, so should habits.

8pen tries to promote such an idea and has created a keyboard using gestures, trying to recreate a “natural” way of writing.

8pen virtual keyboard
8pen virtual keyboard

Of course, one would have to train before getting efficient with it, but I somehow wish I had a device which would support it so that I could test it for myself.

Here is the video from 8pen’s website.

Losing sensation

A difficult aspect for me: you cannot make your fingers run along the surface to find which key you want to press when blind typing.

Some constructors have tried to compensate for that. Android and its haptic screen, for instance: the phone will vibrate each time you “press a key”.

Research In Motion tried another approach and added to some of its BlackBerries the SurePress feature: the touchscreen clicks when you “press a key”. Another approach to make the keyboard more “material”. To my knowledge, this feature met a lukewarm reception.

Blind typing

I find it hard to really blind type on a touchscreen. I undoubtedly make progress but have to check much more often than when using a physical keyboard.

Since the keys are not physical, Google provided a software solution. I did not follow it later, but the first demo video was impressive enough.

And the future

Giving shape dynamically…

Yes, that is how I perceived the future. We already know how to opacify a window using mere electricity. Some materials can go from liquid to solid when a current is applied to them.

So, why would not the science be able to make a polymorphic material, a device the shape of which could be changed through applying subtle electric currents.

Or another solution, I am no expert after all.

Yet, when I spoke of this, people stared at me doubtfully.

… through haptic feedback…

Conviction seemed to waver when I first found an evolved haptic screen prototype by researchers of EPFL (Switzerland). “Haptic” in the real meaning of the word, involving touch.

Basically, using piezoelectricity, researchers succeeded in making some regions of the screen more or less rough. For more details, you can see the following video, presenting the first results.

Even though it was a solution to my own problem of not feeling the buttons of the keyboard and looked promising, it did not fully satisfied me.

But this morning, …

… or even better

This morning, one of these people I talked about my vision (perhaps the least skeptical of them) sent me a link. An incredible link. Future is already here!

This is the video of a dynamic touchscreen. From what I have gathered, it uses a microfluid. I don’t even care for the specifics. I do not intend to build my own, after all, I merely admire the project.

This is called Tactus and is pretty impressive to me.

[Edit: June 8th, 2012 – Yes, the technology uses microfluids. It basically injects fluids to inflate specific parts of the screen. Several parameters are to be set, such as the shape of the buttons, their firmness and so on.]

One last detail: keeping the touchscreens clean

There is one major drawback to touchscreens: fingermarks. But German scientists have figured it out!

See the recipe on Gizmodo:

  1. Deposit soot on the glass.
  2. Coat it with silica.
  3. Bake it 600°C.
  4. You’re done! Transparent grease-proof glass!

Now, when mixing all these technologies together, we should get something most interesting. But I fear also most expensive in the early years.

Wait and see…

Published by

Cyrille Chopelet

Programming addict, UX philosopher, casual gamer, sci-fi enthusiast, hi-tech dilettante, ... Some people even call me a geek.

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"Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure." − Rowena Ravenclaw

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