Now You See It

06 Dec 2011

Author: Carolyn Boyd

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The world has embraced the digital tablet, but the result of typing fast on a touch screen can be messy.
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Researchers at the University of Technology, Sydney have developed a revolutionary keyboard to eliminate the glitches.

Display screens that can sense the touch of a finger are part of everyday life. They are found on automatic teller machines, point-of-sale terminals, GPS navigation systems and many other devices. But touch screens entered a whole new era with the proliferation of the iPad.

In its first year on the market – up until the release of the iPad2 in March 2011 – US tech giant Apple sold 15 million iPads, more than all the other tablet devices on the market combined. Globally, it’s a phenomenal success.

Yet despite their passionate embrace, even regular users note design flaws. Typing on a touch screen can be awkward and frustrating.

“Touch typing is almost impossible on popular touch-screen devices,” notes Sydney-based computer systems researcher Christian Sax. “The keys are quite rigid, they are in straight lines. The user has to adapt their hands to the keys – they cause hand fatigue – and typing speeds on these devices are quite slow. Also, resting your fingers on the keyboard without accidentally activating a key is impossible. So while touch-screen devices are more and more popular, working on them or even just typing an email is quite hard,” he explains.

Sax and his colleague, Hannes Lau, at the University of Technology Sydney, set out to tackle the problem and developed what’s become known as the LiquidKeyboard – software that makes it easier to type quickly and accurately with both hands on touch-screen devices.

Sax and Lau’s invention makes a virtual keyboard appear around the user’s fingertips, instead of having to adapt to keys on the touch screen. The pair took a counter-intuitive approach and made LiquidKeyboard work the other way round.

“The user puts their hands down [anywhere] on the screen and we make the keyboard appear around their fingertips,” says Sax. “So the position of the keyboard is at the user’s command.” The keyboard is simply shaped by the way the user puts down his or her fingers.

LiquidKeyboard also adapts automatically to a user’s hand physiology, such as their hand size and finger position. As the screen is touched, the system senses the pressure and position of those fingers and an entire keyboard pops up around them in one fluid motion.

The traditional QWERTY keyboard system is still used, but with Sax and Lau’s more user-friendly version, the keys are split into key groups based on standard usage to make typing easier and more comfortable. “For example, the left pinkie finger is allocated letters Q, A and Z,” explains Lau, a computer science student, and freelance web developer and application programmer.

The researchers began developing the LiquidKeyboard in early 2010 after reading an article about a newly patented Microsoft keyboard that split a traditional keyboard in two halves. They thought they could do better, and began developing the prototype for LiquidKeyboard, which is still a work in progress, they emphasise.

“We are constantly refining it to overcome design issues. Such as when you use a physical keyboard you can put your fingers on the home keys and rest them there without activating the keys. When you want to activate a key on an ordinary keyboard you press harder,” explains Lau. “But current touch screens are not yet pressure sensitive and that’s a feature we need to make this keyboard really work.”
However, the next generation of pressure-sensitive touch screens are not far away – Sax and Lau expect them to become available in late 2011 or 2012. And their arrival will offer “huge potential” for their software, which has been developed on an iPad, but could be applied to all touch screens.

With a patent application underway, Sax and Lau now are seeking partnerships with companies that are developing pressure-sensitive touch screens and are interested in working with them through the commercialisation process.

Once pressure-sensitive touch screens are available, Sax anticipates that – in the way of the technological revolution – things will move fast. “We definitely see a huge market coming up for this product,” he says.