input devices


I was sorry (though not, alas, surprised) that IBM’s “personal area network” never took off.  This was a research project, demonstrated in the mid-90s, to transfer data through the body.  The skin, more or less, can act as a conductor, allowing a low-power signal to travel between different devices being worn, or to an other person or device with which you are in physical contact.  The sexy demo was exchanging business cards by shaking hands.

This was shortly before Bluetooth press appropriated ‘PAN’ to describe short-range wireless network (though much leakier and higher-powered), and this technology seems to have stayed in the labs.

I always perk up when a new input device is demonstrated, and this one made me think of IBM’s quondam project. Called ‘skinput’, it’s an interesting twist on human-computer interfaces: bio-acoustical sensing combined with a pico-projector to turn the skin of your arm into an input device.  At the moment, the researchers (the project is a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft) have a prototype that distinguishes between five input points with a slick dynamic interface.  Looks like they have a paper that will be presented at the upcoming CHI 2010.

(Via Engadget.)

input devices

Multi-touch keyboard

Atari 400The year (if you’ll cast your mind back) is 1982.  Atari Computer has just released the Atari 400, with its flat, membrane keyboard.  It is a nice idea: just type on the surface (with raised edges around each key as key guides), no moving parts.  Unfortunately, the implementation is terrible.  It’s very extremely hard to get a consistent response from the keys, touch typing is nearly impossible, and it’s terrible for playing games.  Atari wasn’t the first to try the membrane keyboard, of course . . . the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 kit computers had an even worse implementation.

Fast-forward twelve years: the Apple Powerbook 500 has an interesting innovation, a touchpad that can be used as a mousing device.  Again, touchpads weren’t new, but they quickly moved to become nearly ubiquitous on laptops over the next decade  Some people find touchpads very natural, others despise them.  Certainly, after you’ve brushed one with your thumb while trying to type  for the fiftieth time, you’re likely to become a bit exasperated.

The common touchpad cannot detect multiple simultaneous touches.  Or rather, it selects the centroid of all the contact points as the touch location.  If you’re reading this on a laptop, try playing with the touchpad.  Place two fingers, or three, lift one, then place it back down again.  Amusing (if you’re easily amused) but limited.

FingerWorks TouchStream LP KeyboardFor the past four years or so I’ve been using a FingerWorks TouchStream keyboard on-and-off.  This is a return to the completely flat keyboard, but it bears little resemblance to either an Atari 400 or a conventional touchpad.  It is two pads, each around five inches by seven inches, connected by a very short ribbon cable.  The entire assembly can rest on a metal stand or lie flat on a table.

The device serves as both keyboard and mouse.  Without a doubt, it is the most natural mousing device that I’ve ever used. When using the TouchStream, you no longer have to reach over to the side; simply drop two fingers (your right index and middle fingers) anywere on  the right pad, and move them.  The mouse pointer naturally follows your gesture.  Clicking is as simple: tapping those same two fingers is a mouse click, while tapping three fingers is a double click.

Typing is as simple, though it does require more precision.    It is not the same as using a normal keyboard, as no force at all is required.  You simply type, touching your fingers lightly to the images of the keys.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to keep oriented when in full-on high-speed touch-typing mode.  Additional modes (including an embedded programmer’s symbol pad) allow you to reduce the range your hands have to travel while typing.

The array of gestures supported is huge, and completely configurable.  The configuration software is written in Java and works under Linux, Mac, and Windows. Certain common gestures (such as pinching the thumb and middle finger together for ‘cut’ and flicking them apart for ‘paste’) quickly become part of your repetoire, and you miss them greatly when returning to more conventional input devices.

This is one of my favorite gadgets, without a doubt.  It’s never managed to become my primary input device due to the difficulty of keeping fingers aligned with the keys while typing, but as a mousing and gesture device it is unsurpassed.  Sadly, FingerWorks has ceased operations, so this very cool technology is lying fallow.  Apple touts the multi-touch interface screen of the iPhone as  revolutionary, but it’s hardly an original development.

There are a number of TouchStream keyboards floating around on eBay, so it is still possible to obtain one.  I’m tempted to pick up a second, against the eventual failure.  (For this same reason, I have a closet full of IBM clicky-keyboards, the best and most satisfying traditional keyboard design.)

input devices mental exercises reflections

This Is Your Brain on Dvorak

Kinesis Contoured KeyboardSince reorganizing my office, I’ve started using my Kinesis keyboard again. Despite its somewhat peculiar appearance, it’s an extremely well-crafted device. It has a satisfying tactile response approaching the classic IBM keyboard (though without the clickity-clickity), and the concavity gives each key a different shape and feel. It also puts six keys (including Control, Alt, Backspace and Delete) under each thumb, a digit typically consigned to whapping the space bar. Its only significant fault is the lousy, chiclet-style function keys.

The last time I used the Kinesis heavily was when I was learning the Dvorak keyboard layout. I’ve made several runs at it, and the last time I pushed through to start achieving some reasonable (though hardly fast) speed. Dvorak is not without its controversies, but even without the grandiose claims it’s been a very interesting mental exercise. The Kinesis is switchable between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts by hitting a combination of keys. I’d left the keyboard set to QWERTY, and hadn’t thought much more about it for six months.

When I started writing an email, I noticed that I was stumbling, hitting lots of wrong keys. Much to my surprise, my motor memory was trying to type Dvorak. When I switched the keyboard over, I found that I could hit a steady (if somewhat slow) pace.

Switching back and forth between the two layouts is a curious mental exercise . . . when I type a sentence, I typically don’t think at all about the individual letters, or even the mechanics of typing; the words just seem to appear on the screen. Immediately after switching modes, there’s an internal tension, with two competing pathways trying to activate. It’s an almost disconnected, ghostly experience to feel and watch my hands flicking over the keys without conscious intervention.

Despite my increased fluency with Dvorak, I’m still painfully slow compared to my normal speeds. This makes it very hard to persevere for long periods of time . . . it prevents achieving a state of flow, of union with what is happening on the screen of the computer. Even so, it is fascinating to watch the process of the brain rewiring itself under the pressure of new demands.