There is a lot of hype at the moment surrounding the supposed Apple tablet. Many people have been speculating on what features it will have and what the interface will be like. Of particular interest is how you will enter text on an Apple tablet. This got me thinking about how you could do this efficiently.
There are currently two popular means for entering text on portable devices.
Handwriting via Stylus
This was really nailed by Palm. With a bit of practice you could write rather quickly and accurately using this method.
Pressing Virtual buttons
This is the method seen on devices such as the iPhone. On devices this small it works as you can comfortably hold the device such that you can use your thumbs to press the buttons.
I have used both methods and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Writing with the stylus is quick and has the benefit that you can write without having to look at where you are entering the text (similar to touch typing on a traditional keyboard). This makes text entry much more efficient as you don’t have to keep switching between the text you are writing and where you are entering it. It has the downside that you have to keep track of the stylus however and manage getting it out and putting it back. Back when I had my Palm Tungsten I never really thought of this as an issue. After using my iPod Touch for a while however I have come to realise that eliminating this action makes getting to what I want to do much smoother and instant. It seems trivial but this little bit of time saved makes a big difference in practice.
On the downside, the purely touch interface of the iPhone/ Touch has no means for you to be aware of where you are in the interface and to calibrate from that. As a result you have to constantly switch between looking at your fingers to peck the keys and looking at the text to keep track of where you are at. This creates a break in the flow and reduces typing speed.
A new Approach
So let’s look at what alternatives there may be. Ideally it should be finger based only. It would be great also if it was able to operate without you having to look at what your fingers are doing.
Here is what I think would be cool.
The idea is you type by moving your finger around an area of the screen as illustrated below.
A normal querty keyboard is used to get you started. Once you press a key however the rest of the keyboard dissapears and is replaced by a set of letters based on what could possibly follow. This will be a small number of letters (say 4 – 6) and will be placed such as to allow you to glide to them elegantly.
If none of those are what you are looking for then if you wait a predetermined amount of time they will be replaced with another set of characters.
Once the character comes up that you want you move your finger through the letter. The other letters disappear and a new set are chosen that could possibly follow. There is a short delay, so if you get the wrong character you can just move back through it and you will go back a step.
And so it continues. Letters keep the same colour as a secondary means for identifying letters.
When you complete the word you can tap once for space or twice for full stop and space. The qwerty keyboard then reappears and you can start again.
With a bit of practice you will memorise the patterns for common words and be able to make the patterns without having to actually look at the area you are typing on.
If you need to type a word that is not standard and this method isn’t working then there would be an icon you could press to revert back to a standard qwerty keyboard for that word. Then you can jump back to this method and continue.
This technique would suit an Apple tablet as you would ideally be holding it with one hand and manipulating it with the other. The two thumb approach would not work here as the tablet would be too big. The larger screen size of the tablet also means you could dedicate more area to making your patterns.
The images above are just for illustrative purposes only. An actual implementation would be styled differently. For it to work well I think a lot of the details would have to be tweaked to be just right including:
- Size of the letters
- Spacing of the letters
- Placement of new letters (ideally placed to allow for an elegant continuous flow of your finger)
- speed of actions (new letters showing up etc)
It could even be that several of these characteristics are dynamic and adjust according to your actions. eg:
- Timing of actions is adjusted according to how quickly you are moving.
- Spacings are adjusted according to how far you are overshooting characters.
So as you get better, it automatically adjusts itself to be more efficient.
Obviously this is just a brief overview of an idea and it is missing a lot of details but hopefully provides some stimulus for new ideas. I really think that if Apple is to release a tablet it will have an innovative way of entering text and this is one thought on what it could be like.
If you have any thoughts on this topic or ideas of your own I would love to hear them so please leave a comment.