Beyond mobile keyboards

Handwriting or scribbling was the only way to make a personal textual record before the typewriter started imitating standardized print records in the late 19th century. Handwriting is to textual ‘input’ what speech is to inscription in general: it is semiotically rich in terms of personality (no one does graphological analysis on a typescript if they are offering you a job), it is part of our panoply of physical rather than purely cognitive actions, and can be performed on anything from human skin (see the movie Quills on the Marquis de S) to the side of an Abrams tank. Paper has also been pretty successful as an inscription surface for the average handwriter.

The typewriter keyboard, perhaps modeled on the piano keyboard (i.e. choosing linearly from a small set of options for the ten fingers), has since evolved into the dominant input device for computers, and has reigned supreme in an IT economy of low memory and slowish processing power. Now that MIPs and memory are exploding, speech recognition and pen computing are set to take over some of our interface work. This means that we shall gradually free ourselves from the shackles of QWERTY, recreating the ‘natural’ individuality of spoken voices and above all of handwriting and scribbling. The chief attraction, though, of such input methods is that they are extremely portable.

Nowhere will this return to the affordances of handwriting become more marketable than in the mobile phone space. Although performances in SMS messaging using the arbitrary alphanumeric layout of the current generation of mobile keyboards can be spectacular, the hardware might end up as just a five-year wonder. These days, mobile manufacturers such as Nokia and Philips are announcing phones that are timidly moving towards scribble interfaces for texting that garbage-can the prestidigitatorial demands of these ‘older’ keyboards.

Nokia is developing a new phone with handwriting recognition system using a ‘scribble’ screen. Eventually this sort of technology should enable users to take notes from phones calls right into their phones. Using a different approach, the Philips 755 (see here for a negative review) features a touch screen and a new Tag It stylus that enables SMSing using an on-screen keyboard (OSK), rather than poking away at the hardware shell. With the Tag It feature, users will be able to handwrite language tags for anything they want to send to others; including voice, music, and images.

These new features combine the familiarity of eye/hand synchronization in handwriting (tapping the keyboard with a stylus) with the synergy that comes from converging texting/drawing in a single cognitive space (instead of switching programs to shift from writing to drawing). Most of all, they enable non-Latin alphabet languages to play on a level playing field in mobile media – witness Nokia’s recent release of an SMS service in Hindi. This new post-keyboarding regime should also give a boost to innovative language processing solutions, perhaps leveraging capabilities in closely tracking the statistics of personal language usage.

I remember Xerox introducing the same OSK design feature some 15 years ago for its multilingual computing effort. They called it a ‘virtual keyboard’, and it was intended to solve the problem of optimizing text input in more than one script in a single document The idea was to use an OSK with its familiar (localized) layout. Innumerable Macintosh and PC language kits also use(d) these OSKs as an intermediate step towards full product (e.g. hardware and software) localization.

Presumably this new generation of m-phones will also draw on predictive text input as used in current keypad inputting (and where the Canadian firm Zi Corps and the American Tegic probably share the market, especially for Asian scripts) to speed up the handwriting process, though whether this would get in the way of scribbling style remains to be seen. Another interesting option for inputting to mobiles or PDAs is to use the Dasher system (well worth a look) that uses a sort of dynamic OSK based on spelling statistics and still under testing. It claims to be able to input text using eye tracking of the screen at 25 words a minute, and is gradually expanding its language range.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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