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Review: The amazing keyless keyboards

PC World
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Instead of traditional keys, FingerWorks' touchpads have silk-screened diagrams representing keyboards.  


By Sean Captain

(IDG) -- I struggle with my keyboard and mouse every day. I'm an abysmal typist, and lousy posture has taken its toll on muscles and tendons, making input painful at times. Plus, keyboards and mice just aren't fun.

The PC has evolved from an electronic typewriter and calculator to an entertainment system, but we still interact with it as if we were at work -- seated at a desk, hands suspended over a keyboard or clutching a mouse. We're even limited when we play: A joystick may work well with a flight simulator, but not with an adventure game.

However, new touch and optical technologies are appearing in products that could radically change how we communicate with PCs -- promising not only better ergonomics but also new applications.

Point, Don't Click

Many notebook owners have learned to use little touchpads in place of mice, but a company called FingerWorks is using large touchpads in place of keyboards as well. Instead of traditional keys, FingerWorks' touchpads have silk-screened diagrams representing keyboards: You simply touch the area marked "Space", "Enter", or "8", for example. The company claims this light touch approach decreases stress on your fingers.

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That in itself would be interesting, but what makes FingerWorks compelling is something the company calls MultiTouch Technology. If I drop a single finger on the square marked "8", that character will appear on the screen. But if I drop two fingers on the "8" or anywhere else on the pad, it interprets my gesture as a mouse movement. Likewise, it sees three fingers as a double-click, or two fingers and a thumb as a right-click. This worked flawlessly on the company's IGesture pad -- a $189 combination mouse and number pad that I tried out.

FingerWorks also makes full keyboards, such as the $299 TouchStream LP: You can move fluidly from typing to mousing to accessing menu options without taking your hands away from the pad. It's less like inputting data and more like conjuring a spell, and this all-in-one approach may have ergonomic benefits. According to Dr. Erik Peper, who directs the Healthy Computing Project at San Francisco State University, one of the easiest ways to hurt ourselves is to extend our hands away from our bodies while making precise, tiny movements -- as we do when we reach for a mouse next to our keyboard.

We also hurt ourselves by suspending our hands over a keyboard, because we never give the muscles a chance to relax. FingerWorks' technology is pretty good at distinguishing deliberate gestures from the random noise of a stray touch, however, so you can rest your hands on the pads when you aren't typing or mousing.

The Next Dimension

The FingerWorks pads are radical in their ability to read gestures, but conservative in limiting it to two dimensions. Moving to the next level -- literally -- are the P5 glove from Essential Reality and Electronic Perception Technology from Canesta.

The P5 feels more like a cyborg enhancement than a glove. The lightweight unit straps to the back of your hand, and flexible plastic rods run along the back of each finger and hook around the fingertips using plastic rings. The P5 can sense when the rods bend, reading your finger movements with impressive accuracy. This setup will sound familiar to people who remember the Nintendo/Mattel PowerGlove. Essential Reality bought the technology, but it added a twist. The P5 is covered with infrared LEDs, and an IR base station can read the signals and track hand movements in three dimensions.

The implications for video games are obvious, and that's where Essential Reality is starting. By late summer, the company plans to begin selling the glove -- bundled with games -- for $129 to $149, depending on the package. The P5 offers more than a new way to play the same old games, though: It offers ideas for new ones. To demonstrate the potential, David Devor from Essential Reality showed me a game the company developed in which I directed a futuristic catcher's mitt to grab objects floating in space. "Can you imagine this with VR goggles?" Dave asked me. I can, now that I've used the glove.

Essential Reality is imagining other products, too. It plans to release a two-handed version in about a year (the P5 currently works with the right hand only.) And it envisions other components, like shoes and kneepads, that allow the device to interpret full body movements -- a giant step forward for kung fu action games.

Vision of the Future

Meanwhile, a start-up called Canesta is developing technology to do the same thing, without requiring you to strap on any gear. It uses an infrared transmitter to bounce a beam off an object and onto a small charge-coupled device, like those found in digital cameras and camcorders. But this CCD has a chip that can measure precisely when the infrared beam hits each pixel. By comparing the infrared beam's time of flight to different parts of the CCD, the chip can form 3-D image maps. Canesta bills this technology as bringing "sight" to machines, and my mind immediately races to the all-seeing HAL 9000 computer from Arthur C. Clarke's "2001."

The first implementation of this technology will be less dramatic, however. Canesta aims to install the sensor in PDAs and cell phones, together with a tiny projector that will beam the image of a keyboard onto any flat surface. As you reach for the imaginary keys, the sensor will read your finger movements. I tried a simpler version of this with a virtual piano keyboard, and it worked quite well. The folks at Canesta say the sensor will appear in handhelds by early 2003, but they aren't yet saying which companies will carry it.

The virtual keyboard aspires to be a better means of accomplishing something we already do. But Canesta also envisions new applications, including a collision-warning system to monitor your car's blind spot and a super-accurate facial recognition system that will unlock the door when it sees you approaching your house.

If these 3-D input devices sound far-fetched, remember that many people laughed at Xerox's first computer mouse. But progressing from the sequential data entry of a keyboard to the free wanderings of a mouse fundamentally changed how we use a PC. Moving into the third dimension could have an equally powerful effect. Often, the way we put things into a computer can have a big impact on what comes out.


 
 
 
 


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