All Thumbs? Tablet Keyboard Promises To Help

Kalq, soon available for Android devices, re-orders the keyboard layout to speed typing with two thumbs.
Some argue that it doesn't make sense we still make our kids learn cursive. If European researchers have their way, it may soon seem weird that people used to type on their tablets in QWERTY.

Welcome Kalq, a new keyboard for the tablet age, designed by a team led by Scotland's ancient University of St. Andrews, working with Germany's Max Planck Institute for Informatics and Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

The program, which will soon be available as a free Android app, is claimed to support much faster thumb-typing on touchscreen devices than the traditional desktop keyboard convention. (The name comes from the order the keys appear in the new keyboard, in perhaps ironic homage to the QWERTY keyboard layout, designed 140 years ago to slow typists enough to stop them jamming Victorian mechanical machines.)

How much faster? An impressive 34% -- which is bound to be good news for Gen Yers who grew up using their opposable thumbs as their primary letter-finding digit, not the rest of their fingers. The team says it's proven that normal users using QWERTY layouts on a touchscreen device are limited to typing at a rate around 20 words per minute, much slower than on a desktop or laptop. It says its approach can give you more like 37.

[ Stuck on QWERTY? Read BlackBerry Q10: The QWERTY Phone To Beat. ]

"QWERTY has trapped users with suboptimal text entry interfaces on mobile devices," said Per Ola Kristensson, lecturer in human computer interaction in the School of Computer Science at the University of St. Andrews.

"However, before abandoning QWERTY, users rightfully demand a compelling alternative. We believe Kalq provides a large enough performance improvement to incentivize users to switch and benefit from faster and more comfortable typing."

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Why are they so against the keyboard layout we've all grown up with? The team says it went back to the electronic drawing board, creating a computational model of the human thumb's movements. That model then searched among millions of potential alternate layouts before identifying one that yields, it claims, "superior performance."

We said thumbs, right? It turns out two-thumb typing is ergonomically very different from typing on a physical keyboard. The team says it had to rearrange keys quite significantly to really make a difference. Some words which are frequently used in texts, like "on, see, you, read, dear, based," have to be typed on a split-QWERTY layout with one thumb only, which makes the typing process even more cumbersome and slow.

So -- how about a layout for two-thumb text entry that can speed up typing and minimize strain for the thumbs? This, it seems, can help minimize long typing sequences that involve a single thumb. It also became clear it's useful to place frequently used letter keys centrally close to each other. Antti Oulasvirta, senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute, said, "experienced typists move their thumbs simultaneously: while one thumb is selecting a particular key, the other thumb is approaching its next target. From these insights, we derived a predictive behavioral model we could use to optimize the keyboard."

Which means your new two-thumber is, well, not your father's keyboard. Thus all vowels, with the exception of the letter "y" (which can be regarded as both a vowel and a consonant), are placed in the area assigned to the right thumb. In compensation, as it were, the left thumb is assigned more keys. And it seems you need a bit of training in getting your "next thumb" ready, too: again, by using computer science, probabilistic error-correction methods were written that took into account the nature of thumb movements and statistical knowledge about the text users are typing. This algorithm then helps users speed up while retaining an acceptable error level.

Will two thumbs catch on? After all, other attempts to break the dominance of QWERTY have been tried and not really caught on, like Dvorak.

Still, maybe the keyboard for kids who grew up thumbing game controllers is finally here? So forget not just cursive, Pops -- roll over QWERTY, too.

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