On the input habits of the north american 633xx0r, and other techno-rubbish.

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So I’m reading Cory’s new book, which features a world where everyone seems to have a “comm” (a kind of cellphone-PDA hybrid but that seems to do anything a laptop can, with the added feature of wireless intercommunication for things like instant payments etc), and the main character pulls out a keyboard and velcroes it to his leg and starts typing. Not unreasonably, I think:

“How could a whole keyboard fit on the top of your leg? Is it balancing precariously? Are the keys tiny and ridiculous? Did the author even consider this”?”

It would seem obvious that He had some kind of idea when he was writing, but was it really viable?

Keyboards as we know them are great. I love mine like it was my baby, and as soon as I got my ridiculous contraption of a keyboard for my Visor I started typing five times as much as I was previously inputting with the stylus.

But, WHY are our keyboards such valuable tools?

I’ve spent the last 9 years developing my keyboard skills and can now realistically hit about 50 words per minute if it’s dumb shit. I have taught my hands, using software, perseverance and ridiculous amounts of time instant messaging, that if they will just move in the most un-handlike ways for a few minutes, they will have a happy brain to be attached to, and it won’t subject them to the awkward aches of writing on paper (which I hate. seriously.)

But my (and hopefully your) success doesn’t prove anything about the keyboards we use (called “QWERTY” after the first 6 letters in the top left corner). We’ve already seen that both ergonomic keyboards (the split kind) and the “Dvorak” layout can make our experiences of our keyboards more comfortable and easy, but the adaptability issue is a great one, and individuals are no more willing to go out of their way than are the companies who build soft and hard ware.

But even beyond that we have to realize that our entire concept of what a keyboard is, is arbitrary. They were invented in the 1800’s without any consideration whatsoever towards what our hands should really be doing. They were built, both in terms of general design (keys all laid out with one per character) and layout (QWERTY) with the mechanical needs of the time in mind. It had to be big enough to have buttons you could really bash to send the hammer home, popular keys like “E” had to be in awkward places, so the typists wouldn’t go to fast and jam the hammers… etc.

But we’re used to it, and we don’t want to relearn to type, and we love our keyboards like they’re our babies, but what about mobile computing? Like in the example from EST (see top) it seems essentially ridiculous to try to make a normal keyboard into a wearable or holdable size, our hands just aren’t built to have to deal with buttons that small, and in such a random configuration.

another image of the cykeyENTER TECHNO-ANOMALY:
The CyKey. Invented in the 70’s by a couple of guys in England, this intuitive little piece of cyber-magic obviously didn’t make it’s creators rich or famous, rather it became just another example of failed innovation.

Access to an entire keyboard worth of characters with only five keys (more with functions). One hand free to do anything you want (hold a PDA for example, or drink a coke, or have been eliminated by catastrophe). The ability to type 30-50 words per minute without moving your hand out of its natural and comfortable position.

But a learning curve you could kill goats with. The great thing about the standard keyboard setup is the fact that every key has a nifty and useful little visual metaphor emblazoned on it that lets you know exactly which pixels on the screen will light up when you push it. This means that, though it takes years (or crazy intensive work) to get GOOD with a QWERTY keyboard, essentially anyone who knows how to spell can use it without any previous instruction (and some continue their whole lives without moving beyond that point, hunting and pecking).

With the CyKey on the other hand, you have to devote a half hour initially to learn the chording system it uses to input all the different characters (kind of like a piano, but if you never had to move your hands off the keys). But once you have learned it, you are eternally free to type at normal speeds with one hand totally free (as ineloquently described in a cute but also depressingly lo-fi video you can find here.)

cykey chording keyboard imageAnd it’s wireless now. Running on the infrared ports that come ready-installed on all Palm OS PDA’s (like mine) and can essentially be ported to anything (also the technology and idea could be adapted for other transfer formats). You just pull it out and start typing and the PDA or computer hears.

It could go anywhere you wanted. Your leg? Your forearm? The side of your head? The possibilities are pretty much limitless, and because, unlike keyboards, it’s built for a hand you don’t have to see it to be able to use it. It’s intuitive enough that you can have it in a totally different part of your vision from the screen (say a palm pilot that has to stay close to your face).


Of course, no one is buying it. The guy who built it seems to be living out of his basement, and, as such, the units are a bit pricier than they really should/would be, going for about 80 British pounds (160$canadian?).

It’s kind of absurd to think that totally portable computing is here, staring us in the face, begging us to move forward a few feet and catch up with it, in the basement of some guy in England who invented it 30 years ago, when computers were just gaining steam and he realized that the keyboards we used (and use) suck.

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