Virtual keyboards and "feelable" touchscreens

Senseg made a splash recently when they revealed their touchscreen technology which allows you to actually “feel” objects on-screen. By manipulating small electric charges, users can actually feel texture as they interact with a touchscreen. It’d be too easy to dismiss this as a gimmick, however I think this type of technology has the potential to make a positive impact on mobile devices.

Touchscreens are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in mobile devices, leading to the demise of the hardware keyboard. A glance at the list of all HTC phones in their current line-up shows only two of seventeen phones with a hardware keyboard. Samsung again only offer two phones with a hardware keyboard. While touchscreens offer the ability to eliminate hardware keyboards and other unsightly buttons for the sake of sleek aesthetics, they’ve so far failed (in my opinion) to provide a suitable replacement for hardware keys.

Yes, touchscreen keyboards are flexible and can offer a variety of layouts, however they still don’t give sufficient physical feedback to allow fast touch typing. One reason we’re better at typing on physical keyboards is because we “know” where our fingers are. The edges of keys (and the raised bumps often found on some keys) provide reference to other locations on the keyboard. Without looking at the keyboard, an experienced typist can type upwards of 100 words per minute. On a touchscreen, without proper physical feedback, you can expect just a small fraction of those speeds.

One argument against that could be the screen size, however tablets suffer from the same problems. The 26 character keys on my keyboard are of comparable size to the virtual keyboard on my 10-inch tablet. A popular approach to providing feedback for a mobile devices is to vibrate upon key press, however this provides little information other than “you’ve pressed a key”. An alternative approach to making touchscreen keyboards easier to use has been patented by IBM; a virtual keyboard that adjusts itself to how users type on-screen. Auto-correct is another feature which has risen to aid the use of virtual keyboards, yet addresses the symptoms rather than the cause.

Enter touchscreens you can “feel”. Actually being able to feel (something which resembles) the edges of keys on a virtual keyboard is likely to make it much easier to type on touchscreen devices. If technology becomes available which allows effective representation of edges (which Senseg claims their technology can), touchscreen devices will be able to offer what is, in my opinion, an improvement to virtual keyboards. I think this could be of particularly great benefit on tabletop computers which, by nature, allow a more natural typing position than handheld devices. Or perhaps this is all just wishful thinking because I go from 110WPM at my desktop to around 5WPM on my phone.