Enhancing virtual keyboards

Since I already began posting on keyboards, I will today focus on touch screens and virtual keyboards.

Some weeks ago, I learned about the release of a new beta version of Swype and had a quick look into it. And other products.

Since yes, there are actually several similar products. In my humble opinion, this is evidence that current solutions for virtual keyboards on touchscreens may not be mature yet. They still need some adjustments. Or brand new features.

In this post, I’ll present a (very) quick tour of what I’ve found.

Blind typing on virtual keyboards

Blind typing on a virtual keyboard is taking quite a chance according to me. Or having acquired quite a practice. In any case, some dynamic correction techniques exist.

BlindType

I already spoke of BlindType, but it still amazes me. In case you never heard of it, here is the showcase video.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9b8NlMd79w]

What became of them? Well, Google bought them. Some thought BlindType was to be included into the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, but for what I know, this is not the case.

SwiftKey

Systems learning from us to get ever-more adapted to their users. This is a new trend, and this is what SwiftKey proposes.

Basically, it learns what you type and how you type.

What you type: the keyboard proposes a next-word or corrects the one you just typed according to the context of the sentence, but also to the words you usually use, the order you use them, … This keyboard learns you writing style to ease your task by writing in your place.

XKCD & SwiftKey
An XKCD interpretation of SwiftKey

How you type: whether you take time in clicking the precise location of the button or just go pushing around where the key should be. You can fine-tune the level so that the corrections will be more relevant.

While searching about it, I found a comparison video between SwiftKey and the standard Android ICS keyboard. Enjoy it!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAJIDH5d4C4]

Sliding instead of typing

On a physical keyboard, you have to push buttons. Therefore, your fingers go up and down above the keyboard.

But with a touch screen, why do so? The surface is plane, why not simply slide your finger along it? That seems to be the principle several solutions have adopted.

When you compare the features for instance of SlideIT, TouchPal and Swype, you find several common ones.

First, they all propose disambiguation and correction. Alright, I don’t imagine trying to propose a keyboard without these.

On-the-fly suggestions are also in. Once again, these have become so basic that I could not imagine a virtual keyboard not offering them (which may be a weakness from me… Think different!).

TouchPal and Swype also explicitly explain they learn from your typing. Soooo… It seems to me they have all the interesting features of SwiftKey (though I have no means of comparing the algorithms of each).

But they also have more. All of SlideIT, TouchPal and Swype propose a new way to typing: instead of tapping your screen, slide (or “swipe”) your screen. They thus try to break from the legacy of physical keyboards.

Why should we tap? In the end, it’s just a remnant of the habit of pushing buttons.

Of course, there are other ways of “typing.” Both SlideIT and Swype offer speech recognition. Swype is even a product of the Nuance family, which is well-known for the Dragon products, specialized on speech recognition.

Forgetting the legacy of physical keyboards

OK, so we saw about forgetting legacy. But we’re not done yet.

Physical keyboards were designed to roughly match human hands’ size. Smartphones are designed to fit inside a human hand. How could the virtual keyboard they display match a human hand in size?

8pen seems to me to be an awesome keyboard, because it has evolved beyond what we are used to, and proposed a brand new solution.

8pen virtual keyboard
8pen virtual keyboard

The keyboard is divided in quarters. The characters are placed along the edges of each, from the most to the least used. To “type”, you begin sliding from the center and then turn around, moving one character each time you go through an edge.

This may not seem clear explained this way. Still, the gestures must become very efficient once you get into the habit. To have a better idea, just go and watch the videos on the website.

I’d personally love to get my hands on such a keyboard for a few weeks to try it out…


Some of these keyboards look really impressive and I am almost depressed I have no Android device to test them out.

What about you? What virtual keyboard do you suggest?

Published by

Cyrille Chopelet

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

One thought on “Enhancing virtual keyboards”

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