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iSlate’s amazing tactile feedback keyboard

There’s lots of hubbub about Apple’s upcoming tablet device, but the stuff people are talking about I’m not actually all that excited about.  A giant iPhone?  Sure, that’ll be nice.  A color e-reader that can run apps.  Okay, I guess that’s better than kindle.  A super-thin netbook without a real keyboard.  Meh.  Actually, I don’t know that I’d want one at all.  Unless…

Unless Apple has come up with a better way to do soft keyboards, that is.  When I say “soft keyboard” I mean the kind of keyboard that appears on a touch screen and has no physical keys.  I’ve complained about the iPhone’s keyboard for a while.  While it’s true that people do get better at using these, I still don’t think I’ll ever be nearly as fast or accurate (even with smart correction) with a soft keyboard as I was with my blackberry.  I think that’s probably true on average for most people.  The basic reason is the lack of tactile feedback.  With a physical keyboard, if my fingers are slightly off target, they are guided to the right place by feel.

I’ve argued for some time now that the way to solve this is by figuring out how to make a touch-screen display with tactile feedback.  How would such a device work?  Physically I couldn’t tell you.  But what we’d need would be a way to electronically manipulate texture in a clear material.  A plastic with a matrix of cells that could expand or contract under electronic control.  So the software could create bumps where each of the keys are.  This would allow a software-reconfigurable gadget that could be almost as usable as a dedicated-purpose device.

This is very different from what is commonly referred to as “haptic feedback” on some of today’s gadgets like the Nexus One.  Here, the phone’s vibrator pulses a bit when you press a soft key.  This is a kind of feedback which is tactile in that you feel it, and it gives you information about your interaction with the device without having to look at the screen.  It certainly helps.  But it is not going to improve basic typing for a critical reason — it can’t help guide fingers to the right place.  The basic act of positioning fingers on controls is still basically open loop, feed forward, without guidance.  What I’m referring to as tactile feedback helps the fingers find the right spots to press without looking.  Today’s haptic feedback can’t do that.

To be clear, true tactile feedback like this almost certainly doesn’t exist yet.  This kind of pure technological innovation basically always starts in universities or government run labs.  The ROI on pure research into unproven technology is so low that it doesn’t make sense for companies to invest there.  Even if a company proved this was possible (which AFAIK hasn’t been done yet) they’d need to figure out how to manufacture it at scale before they could sell a device with it.  Last time I predicted it would be about 2012 before we saw these.  Even though Jobs almost certainly foresees the value of such a system, Apple’s expertise is not in material science.  Wired speculated about such a keyboard based on Apple’s patent filings, but what they describe seems a bit too sci-fi for me to believe.

If they have come up with something new and cool, it’s going to be a smarter way to use basically existing hardware.  I’m gonna guess it’s probably something like a touch screen which is pressure sensitive, so you can rest your fingers on it without indicating a “button press”, making typing more natural.  You could combine this with fixed, transparent dimples on the screen under the positions where the keys are, and you’d do pretty well.  Restrict the keyboard to only work in landscape mode and you only need one set of dimples.  This would be a huge improvement in usability and the biggest technological breakthrough would be the ability to distinguish a soft push from a hard push on a capacitive touch-screen.  Like by how much surface of your finger is on it.

Regardless of what Apple’s actually managed to achieve, I wish them the best.  They’re really pushing the envelope on human-computer interactions.  If they’ve done anything significant to improve soft keyboards, they will have once again done something that the entire rest of the industry will want to emulate, and I’ll tip my hat to them.

Photo courtesy of hradcanska
  1. cowboys4fire1 says:

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