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Improving the Keyboard Without Changing QWERTY

It’s not a word but anyone who’s every touched a keyboard in any of its current or historical variations recognizes these six letters as the ones on the keys making up the top left row of the standard keyboard … the keyboard that has existed since it was patented in 1867 and has resisted 150 years of attempts to improve its efficiency by physical redesign. A new patent takes a new approach … keep the layout but give the keys more capabilities through the use of different fingers, hands and hand positions.

Can you teach and old keyboard new tricks?

Can you teach an old keyboard new tricks?

The patent was filed by graduate student Jingjie Zheng and Professor Daniel Vogel of the University of Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science and presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 34th annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

At its core, this provides a more nuanced way to press keys on a keyboard … Our work revisits the lowly keyboard and demonstrates how it can be taught some new tricks.

Zheng and Vogel observed that keyboard users prefer their thumb and index fingers the most (no surprise here), rarely use their middle or ring fingers alone and modify their hand positions to efficiently hit certain keys with either hand across the keyboard. Instead of throwing out everything one learns in keyboarding class, they decided to take advantage of these things to improve QWERTY.

Keyboard recognizes closed or open hand and assigns two meanings to same finger

Keyboard recognizes closed or open hand and assigns two meanings to same finger

The pair developed a computer vision algorithm using a PC’s camera to identify fingers, hands and positions on a keyboard. The algorithm then created Finger-Aware Shortcuts unique to an individual user. A Finger-Aware Shortcut might assign an individual key one meaning when pressed with by an index finger with other fingers open or splayed, and a second meaning with pressed with the same index finger and the other fingers closed – same finger, different tasks based on the algorithm’s awareness of open or closed fingers. The shortcuts were then given to the users with a cheat sheet to help memorize them. The study found that the users learned the shortcuts quickly and the eventual error rate was a low 1.9%.

Keyboard recognizes different hands and assigns two meanings to same key

Keyboard recognizes different hands and assigns two meanings to same key

Implementing easy-to-learn and easy-to-use shortcuts on the QWERTY keyboard will benefit users with complex keyboarding demands. It will also help gamers looking for more commands.

It’s a simple idea, but we found that people like it a lot.

Sounds like another old letter-based concept that has served us well since it was developed by the U.S. Navy in 1960 … KISS.

Keep it simple, stupid.

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  • Adam Kalina

    Fun fact: The keys on the top row are what they are because it was convenient for typewriter salesmen to demonstrate how the device worked. They could type “typewriter” using only the top row of keys.

  • Hammond Ecks

    Although it may be part urban legend, many of the other key positions were reportedly chosen to deliberately make typing less efficient. Typists using more-ergonomic layouts supposedly hit keys quickly enough that early mechanisms jammed.

    I wonder if the researchers’ ideas can be extended to international keyboards that don’t use the English QWERTY layout.