2005 A sight for sore thumbs?
December 20th, 2005

The Economist writes this week:”Researchers are dreaming up some surprising new ways to enter text into mobile devices more quickly”.

People who send text messages fall into two camps: the 50% or so who, according to surveys, like to have the “predictive” text-entry function on their handset switched on, and the other 50% who prefer the “multi-tap” method of tapping out one letter at a time. The problem with predictive text is that it often guesses the wrong word: invite a friend out for a “pint” (7468 on most keypads), and your phone may suggest “shot” and “riot” before guessing the correct word. The problem with multi-tap is all that tiresome clicking, which is why people often use abbreviations in their txt msgs. Neither method is anywhere near as fast as a conventional keyboard; and a mini-keyboard squeezed on to a small device (such as the BlackBerry and its imitators) is too fiddly for some users. So the search continues for a way to enter text into mobile devices with the speed of a full-sized keyboard, but without its bulk. Ken Perlin of New York University’s Centre for Advanced Technology began working on the problem in 1997. The result was Quikwriting, a stylus-based system that allows the user to enter text without ever lifting the stylus off the screen. Imagine a drawing of a flower, with eight petals around a stamen, on a touch-sensitive screen. Each petal contains up to eight letters, numbers and punctuation marks. Picking a character involves moving the stylus from the stamen into a petal, and then back to the stamen (in some cases via another petal). Each word forms a squiggle, and users soon learn the shapes of common words as with shorthand. To start with, Quikwriting attracted a small but devoted following among users of Palm handheld computers. But it has since been licensed by Microsoft, which is developing it (under the name XNav) for use in a range of devices, including mobile phones, television remote controls and its Xbox games consoles. It has done away with the stylus and built several prototypes based on a flower-shaped array of buttons. By running your thumb over the buttons in sequence, you can write text messages or e-mails with one hand.

IBM has also developed a squiggle-writing interface, called Shape Writer, for use on tablet PCS. It relies on a specially developed on-screen keyboard, in which the letters are laid out in a hexagonal grid. As with Quikwriting, the user drags a stylus over the keyboard to pick out letters. Lifting the stylus indicates the end of a word. Each word has a distinctive squiggle shape (or “sokgraph”, as Shumin Zhai, the developer of the system, calls them), which is identified by pattern-recognition software. As a result, ShapeWriter is very tolerant of straying styluses.

In tests, users were able to reach speeds of 80 words per minute.

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