I can’t replace my computer with an Android handset or tablet, and the reason isn’t power or speed or screen size or battery life. The big problem is input: getting my ideas, mostly in the form of text, into the device and onto the Net. I expect rapid progress on this front; herewith a short survey and my own proposal.

Yes, It’s a Problem · Here’s a strong claim: In this day and age, anyone who has had any success as a knowledge worker is an at-least-competent typist. And a second: None of the currently-available mobile-device input methods approach the performance of a well-built, responsive keyboard. Well, with the obvious exception of an outboard keyboard, but if you’re going to carry one of those around, why not just carry a computer?

Remember, Knowledge is a text-based application™.

Experimentation · In the Android world, input methods are freely replaceable, and developers are already offering replacements. I haven’t seen them all, but here are some I know about, in no particular order: SlideIT, FlexT9, SwiftKey, The 8pen, Chorded Keyboard, and Swype.

All of those but Swype are Android-Market links. Swype isn’t in Market because they do deals with handset makers to pre-install it on their phones, at a charge depending on how many units the maker is willing to guarantee.

Obviously, there are ways into your device that don’t involve a real or virtual keyboard; in the list above, FlexT9 integrates voice and The 8pen is something completely different. You can also do lots of things by talking to your Android device, but pretty well the only time I do that is in my car; I just feel like a dork talking to a computer in public.

I don’t have time or patience to do a comparative review of everything available, but somebody should, and if you already have, let me know and I’ll splice in a link right here.

But the message is clear: We’re getting out of the developers’ way, and if there is a solution out there, somebody’s gonna find it, and probably make some serious money.

The Digitator · Here’s my own idea, offered freely for anyone to build. The “digit” in the name refers to the digits of your hand, which work so well at entering text given a keyboard to pound on.

I’m thinking of a different kind of “Data Glove”, which is not a new idea by any means. At trade shows, I’ve seen any number of hideous hulking button-laden things you can wear on a hand and control a computer with; none of them have ever really caught on.

The Digitator is something different; it looks like a fingerless glove and you wear it on your non-dominant hand (left, in my case). It’s light and thin and only covers your first knuckle, and comes as a fashion statement in everything from basic black to spring magnolia, with or without sequins or other adornment.

Each of the five digit-sleeves has a sensor that detects deflection and impact. It works somewhat as a chording keyboard does; various combinations of finger/thumb motions transmit different characters. You have a lot more options than you do with your classic GKOS layout, because you can move your fingers, singly or in pairs, in multiple directions, and you can curl or bend or tap. I just held my left hand out and had no trouble thinking of thirty or so easily-distinguishable wiggles and taps in a couple of minutes.

I envision a future in which people hold their handsets or tablets up with one hand, and text leaps across the screen, driven by the other hand casually dancing on the arm of the chair or swinging by their thigh as they walk.

Wouldn’t that be cool? Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that something will come along.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Jacek (Mar 03 2011, at 17:25)

Morse code is an interesting alternative:


(a similar input method is available on Android)

I mean, I don't expect anyone to learn it just to use on a smartphone, but if you already know Morse, you can achieve impressive speeds without even looking at the screen.


From: Ryan (Mar 03 2011, at 18:22)

Sounds just like the input device the assassin used in Dan Brown's late-90s book "Digital Fortress". However, he used a screen that projected onto his glasses rather than a tablet (it was called the monocle computer). An excerpt:

"The Monocle’s real coup, though, was not its miniature display but rather its data entry system. A user entered information via tiny contacts fixed to his fingertips; touching the contacts together in sequence mimicked a shorthand similar to court stenography. The computer would then translate the shorthand into English."


From: Rahul Horé (Mar 03 2011, at 18:54)

Hi, Tim.

I'm so glad you posted this! I haven't been able to stop thinking about text entry for touchscreens ever since you wrote this:

"Tablets and handsets can displace computers as play and reading devices, but they really can’t become dominant as work tools until we have a better solution for high-speed low-friction text input. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see dramatic progress in this area; it’s so obviously the number-one usability barrier for everything that isn’t badged as a “computer”."

You are so dead right here.

I tried to get some insight on this question earlier in the year on Quora in asking "Has there been any research into developing a new method of text entry optimized for touchscreen devices?" (http://qr.ae/hREA) Alas, I still have to do my own write-up summarizing the problem. I swear there is a thesis here. (-:

One of the answers that interested me most suggested chordal text entry. I really like this idea. Although I don't think a 'data glove' accessory is the way to go, I believe you hit upon the main weakness of all current 'improvements' in touchscreen text entry.

The thing that really bothers me about alternatives like Swype, T9 Trace, and even 8pen is that they fail to capitalize on the fact that we have multiple fingers. Though I really like the 'a word is a continuous path' paradigm, I can't help but think that text entry should be more rhythmical -- like playing a piano.

Whatever the case, I hope you continue to give the problem more exposure. Although I'm sure there are people working on this very problem, I'm still dismayed to see so little discussion on the topic. Hopefully you'll spark that better than I can.


From: John Cowan (Mar 03 2011, at 20:05)

I actually thought up the specifics for a device like this that could fully simulate a 103-key keyboard, but I can't find them now.


From: Steve Miller (Mar 03 2011, at 20:14)

Why not speech recognition?


From: Janne (Mar 03 2011, at 21:06)

Umm, so I hold the phone or tablet with one hand, while I point and click and drag with the other. Then I type with - what hand, exactly? The hand that is already holding the thing (sounds like a recipe for dropping it)? The other hand - how do you differentiate typing movements and other hand movements? And which hand is holding the coffee?

My take is that the keyboard of the future is the keyboard. If you are doing more than a trivial amount of input during the day, you'll have some kind of hardware keyboard with you. Could be integrated, could be a separate unit, could be a springloaded pop-out from the back of a tablet, like a game controller but it will have rows of keys and tactile feedback.


From: Fazal Majid (Mar 03 2011, at 22:14)

Dilbert has you beat by a decade and half:



From: Gowri (Mar 03 2011, at 23:37)

Perhaps a Kinect like technology should be embedded or added to the mobile devices and then we can place the device on a table and just move our hands in thin air as if we are typing on a invisible keyboard. The "Kinect" part should detect the keys being typed by the position and movement of hand.


From: Lawrence Mitchell (Mar 04 2011, at 01:54)

A further option, which perhaps would have more mindshare if not for the slightly 90s graphics, is dasher http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher/. There's an Android input method available. It can even be used as a corrector for speech recognition (http://gazeinteraction.blogspot.com/2010/06/speech-dasher-fast-writing-using-speech.html)


From: Anton McConville (Mar 04 2011, at 07:24)

How about propping the phone upright on one side and having it graphically project a full sized keyboard on a table or flat surface that we could type onto - combined with motion detection.


From: Jonathan Abbey (Mar 04 2011, at 07:59)

There's also Palm's Grafiti for Android: https://market.android.com/search?q=pname:com.access_company.graffiti


From: fictionalui (Mar 04 2011, at 10:57)

It's an interesting idea, but I wonder if it overestimates fingers dexterity.

All fingers, except the thumb, trails each other, it's difficult to move one without influencing the others, especially if they float in the air without pressing on some object, and learning to coordinate them isn't that easy, as everybody who's tried to learn a string instrument knows for sure.

I guess teaching the software to isolate the intended combinations from the noise isn't trivial, and trying to perform them for long can be stressfull.

Anyway it's a path worth exploring


From: Elaine Nelson (Mar 04 2011, at 12:19)

This is precisely the reason why I picked the G2: the keyboard - also why I was dedicated to my old MDA, at least until I put it in a tote bag with a leaky water bottle. I've tried onscreen text input & it just doesn't work for me. (Impatient? Clumsy? Don't know & don't care.)

I certainly can't imagine writing a novel on it, but it's good enough for respectable-length emails and such...including this comment.


From: Daniel (Mar 04 2011, at 13:36)

I once saw your digitator/fingerless-input-glove on Swedish television, I guess it was around ten years ago. The program was about how to take an innovation from concept to market, and obviously this particular example didn't do it so well ...

Unlike yours, it was supposed to be for both hands, and the "gestures" would be that of a "correct" touch typist working on a qwerty keyboard. As the the sensors were some where near the first knuckle you could type in the air as well as on a rolled out keyboard map.

Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the woman who invented it, nor the name of the device. It would be interesting to know if it failed on the technical implementation , usefulness or marketing.

(I remember the prototype was made by tech students, and that it was somewhat working ...)


From: Daniel (Mar 04 2011, at 14:03)

I found some more information:

The inventor was Gunilla Alsiö(http://www.linkedin.com/in/gunillaalsioe) and her company and the product seems to be named "Senseboard". The company web sites (senseboardinc.com and senseboard.com) seems abandoned.

A blog post from 2009 shows both that the project then still had some life and that my memories betrayed me - it's not really a glove and it's hard to describe this as light and thin ...:


The concept is the same though.


From: RL (Mar 04 2011, at 16:06)

Tim, interesting point; would you consider typing at the speed of thought?

Probably best we retain these externality filters?


From: John Roth (Mar 04 2011, at 16:29)

I suspect the big thing might just be a pressure sensitive case for a phone or a tablet. You're going to be holding the thing, why not let it read finger pressure on the hand that's doing the holding. If you're not, maybe the glove would work. The barrier is to hook the early adopters.


From: Stan (Mar 04 2011, at 21:34)

>>Well, with the obvious exception of an outboard keyboard, but if you’re going to carry one of those around, why not just carry a computer?

For example, jwz declared he'd never use a laptop after he got an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard.


>>>It's an instant-on appliance with a real web browser and real mail reader on a real screen.

>>>The on-screen keyboard is mostly tolerable for typing short things


From: Karl Voit (Mar 05 2011, at 10:17)

The thing you might be interested in is called Twiddler2: http://handykey.com/

It's a one-hand input device that lets you type by pressing key combinations.

Additionally I wanted to link you to my (small) experiment where I asked people to join me performing input tests on their mobile devices using different input methods. It's not statistically significant since I reached only few people willing to type in the example text while measuring the time.

But the results might be of interest anyhow:


Since this, I stopped using ShapeWriter (similar to Swype) because there was only a subjective advantage but it is actually pretty slow compared to the standard HTC onscreen keyboard.


From: Aidan (Mar 07 2011, at 13:26)

I think it's more likely that we'll have a device that fits on a single finger and performs motion detection, allowing you to use shorthand gestures.

Why? Because shorthand already exists, and motion detection components are becoming very small - they'll easily fit inside a large ring at some point in the next 5 years.


From: Tim Converse (Mar 09 2011, at 17:51)

Love the idea. I'm curious why you imagine the glove on the non-dominant hand though? I think my own instinct, if I had to hold something with one hand and do something complicated with the other one, would be to hold with left hand, do complex thing with right hand. (I'm right-handed.)


From: Tom Malaher (Mar 18 2011, at 13:22)

Just finished reading Charles Stross's _Iron Sunrise_. Characters wear "rings" that allow them to do essentially what you're talking about. Combined with augmented reality glasses or retinal implants, the characters are able to interact with their computing systems with very little hardware to get in the way. There is of course one character (a journalist) who does heavy text input on a (foldable) keyboard. He's old-school.


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