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A True Gesture Keyboard: Ending the Virtual QWERTY Tyranny

Updated on June 30, 2016
The original QWERTY keyboard
The original QWERTY keyboard

Introduction

The familiar "qwerty" keyboard layout, originally designed for the mechanical typewriter, has been around since the later half of the 19th century. It survived the transition to the electronic computer keyboard and has become the standard way of entering text into a computer. However, when it comes to using it with a touchscreen, many problems arise. This article will discuss those problems and describe a new type of text entry that is fast and tailored specifically to work with the touchscreen.


Problems with QWERTY

Recently touchscreen versions of the "qwerty" keyboard have been used extensively in smart-phones and tablets. The "qwerty" layout, named after the top left row of letters on a standard keyboard, has worked well for typewriters and computer keyboards, but when implemented on touch-screens, it becomes much less efficient.

Any keyboard relying on pressing a separate key for each character, depends on the tactile feedback provided by the mechanical keys. When your eight typing fingers are placed above their "home" keys, you can feel the keys' contours and thus can tell when your fingers stray from their home position. This frees your eyes for other things, like the text you might be copying or reading, or the person you are with. Once the key positions have been memorized, i.e. once touch typing has been mastered, the typing can be quite fast.

QWERTY touch screen keyboard
QWERTY touch screen keyboard

This cannot be done with the touchscreen version of the "qwerty" keyboard because the screen is smooth and you can't feel the keys. Even if you could, your fingers must be off the screen between key presses. To compensate, you must use your eyes to monitor the location of your fingers. This is especially difficult with smartphones, where the key images are tiny and are blocked from view by your fingers!

As a consequence many tasks, normally done with a computer keyboard, are cumbersome with the touchscreen version. Copying text becomes particularly difficult in that your eyes must constantly jump between the text being copied and the keyboard. When in a meeting or classroom where notes are being taken, and a smartphone or tablet would really be handy, the same thing happens. The keyboard is also slow and error prone because of the eye-hand coordination needed to operate it.

There's Another Way

Although the touchscreen is clearly not well suited to emulating a "qwerty" keyboard, there are aspects of the touchscreen that lend themselves quite well to making a good text entry device. One of these is the ease of making swipes and other gestures due to the screen's smooth surface and the ability of the software to track the fingers' positions. This has been demonstrated by the success of the pinch gestures pioneered on the iPhone.

To take advantage of this feature, what if each key press were replaced by a unique gesture, like a tap or swipe?

Multi-finger input
Multi-finger input | Source
Single finger gestures
Single finger gestures

This would eliminate the need to constantly look at the input area since the gesture can start anywhere. But how can we devise enough, easy to make, unique gestures to allow for the 26 letters of the alphabet as well as shifts and punctuations? What follows is a solution to that problem.

More Fingers: Suppose we use a small set of single finger gestures and combine them with multiple fingers to make possible a larger number of multi-finger gestures. Three fingers was chosen here to be compatible with the smaller screens found on smart-phones. To the right is a table showing 13 simple single finger gestures consisting of a tap and 12 different swipes. These consist of simple swipes in one of four directions and curved swipes where the the swipe starts in one direction and ends in another.

Four possible combinations of three fingers can be used: one finger by itself, two adjacent fingers, two non-adjacent fingers, and all three fingers together. When using more than one finger, all of the fingers simultaneously make one of the 13 single finger gestures.

Multi-finger lower case gesture table
Multi-finger lower case gesture table

The total number of gestures possible is thus (4 finger combinations) x (13 gestures) = 52, which is comparable to the number of keys on a typical "qwerty" keyboard. In the table to the right, these gestures have been assigned in a way that ensures that the most frequently used letters, shifts, and punctuations are paired with the simplest gestures. For example a "space", the most frequently used character is a simple one finger tap. The letter "e" is two adjacent fingers tapping. In the table a filled circle means a tap, an arrow designates a swipe, and a dash means the corresponding finger does not touch the screen.

To aid in learning the gestures, this table is displayed in the area of the screen, under the fingers, where the gestures are formed. It serves as a type of "crib" sheet for remembering the gestures.

The fact that the swipes can be as little as a few millimeters in length makes this technique potentially very fast. Thus far it has been demonstrated at over 40 words per minute and faster speeds are entirely possible.



Summary

Because of the lack of tactile feedback, the touchscreen version of the "qwerty" keyboard will always be slow and error prone requiring good eye-hand coordination to operate efficiently. A technique has been described which solves most of the problems encountered in doing text entry on touchscreen devices like smartphones and tablets. A unique gesture for each character is made possible using a combination of simple taps and swipes using up to three fingers. This makes possible eyes-free operation at high speed, making text entry comparable to what is possible with a conventional desktop keyboard.

This concept has been recently realized as an app for Android called Flicboard.

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    • electronician profile image

      Dean Walsh 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I agree that its probably times to start seriously looking at alternatives to qwerty, but coordinating three fingers and having multiple taps and swipes for a single letter doesn't look like a viable solution to me. Honestly, we just need to get more used to using voice commands - the technology is already there and its faster and easier than any kind of typing, but for some reason many people just don't seem to like using it; I'm convinced its only because it feels awkward to talk to a machine unless in a novelty type way like asking silly questions to Siri, but once you get used to it voice commands are the best solution.

    • dlrogers profile image
      Author

      Dennis Rogers 3 years ago from Upstate New York

      Actually, I think the coordination needed to type on a QWERTY keyboard is much greater than that needed for the gestures being talked about. Since all of the fingers move in the same way, there is really little coordination needed except for controlling which fingers are down and which are up. A problem with voice recognition is that the algorithms that work well depend on considerable processing power (often requiring an internet connection) and we are running into limits on the processing power that can be put in a cell phone at reasonable power levels.

      Also speech recognition strongly relies on context to successfully guess the word being spoken. This inevitably results in errors. Someday these problems may be overcome. However, it will always be the case that speech recognition requires a relatively noise free environment.

    • TDowling profile image

      Thomas Dowling 2 years ago from Florida

      Interesting Hub, dlrogers.

      It's ironic that this should be the 1st Hub I've read on my new smartphone. It's a Galaxy Note 3 -- the largest phone (until the iPhone 6 plus) and it comes with a stylus. I got it because I was afraid my big mitts would be hitting the wrong keys. The stylus makes typing a breeze. I'd much rather press letters on a screen than use a system of swipes. The voice function works great with my new phone. However it requires some cleanup (i.e. I said "and the" & the phone interrupted as "Andy").

      NOTE: I wanted to rate up this Hub but didn't find such an option using the mobile version or perhaps Hub pages eliminated it.

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