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2/17/2005
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Virtual Keyboard Could Empower Mobile Devices

Technology uses a red laser to illuminate a virtual keyboard outline on just about any surface; connects to devices via Bluetooth.

(SCOTTSDALE, AZ) Everyone wants their mobile devices to be small, but many people also curse the tiny, cryptic keyboards that manufacturers squeeze into smart phones and PDAs. The laws of physics have proved a significant barrier to solving this problem, but VKB Inc.'s Bluetooth Virtual Keyboard offers a possible solution.

Unveiled at this week's DEMO conference, VKB's technology uses a red laser to illuminate a virtual keyboard outline on virtually any surface. Despite its futuristic look, the laser is really just a visual guide to where to put your fingers. A separate IR illumination and sensor module invisibly tracks when and where your fingers touch the surface, translating that into keystrokes or other commands.

Manufactured for the Israeli- and Palo Alto, Calif.-based VKB by ITech, the BTVKB is a slick, black standalone unit about the size of a small fist. It connects to the device it controls via Bluetooth. The company announced that Radio Shack has agreed to sell the units (pricing has not yet been set). The company also said they will be available online for $199.

The units' lithium-ion batteries are estimated to last about 2.5 hours, and the unit ships with an AC adapter.

With no tactile feedback, the virtual keyboard requires getting used to, CEO Jonathan Curtis explained. Touch typists have to retrain themselves not to rest their fingers on the typing surface, for example, while hunt-and-peck users adapt very quickly. The system does provide an audible click when a key is successfully "pressed."

Although the VKB attracted its share of admirers at the DEMO show, the company's real goal is to build the virtual keyboard technology directly into mobile devices by mid-2006. That would shrink the size, extend battery life, and potentially let users rely on a small mobile device instead of a full-fledged laptop.

Curtis sees applications in airplane seatbacks, cars, defense uses, hospitals (virtual keyboards don't trap dirt and germs), and home appliances and automation. Curtis also said the sensor technology could be used to create touchscreens that don't suffer the brightness loss common to most models.

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