Typing and small devices

I hate texting. Actually that’s not completely fair. I like the concept, I hate doing it.

The reason is that texting is commonly understood as sending messages from a device that lacks a fullsized (or close to it) keyboard. Thus you have to hunt and peck or double-thumb the device (regardless of whether you’ve individual keys or multiple letters on each key).

I have two problems with this. First and foremost is the fact my fingers are a bit thick and far from agile. Even if I just poke with a single digit, I frequently hit more than one key at a time or hit the same key once too many times. Either way I find myself wasting much time hitting a backspace button – or giving up and sending a garbjlred message. (typo intentional)

As it happens I have this problem on a normal keyboard too, though it’s more frequently due to sloppy movement (aka poor agility) than it is fat fingers. There, however, we run into the second problem of the little keyboard. I touch type. I learned how in high school, and still sustain between 45 and 60 words per minute after adjusting for accuracy (depending on how much I’ve practiced recently). That’s fast enough that taking a second or two to swiftly backspace and retype is… it doesn’t impact my output significantly. Because I have to hunt and peck, however, I don’t achieve anywhere near the same speed. Thus those few seconds to back up (and those, at least, are short) are followed by agonizing moments trying to find and get out the letters I want sent.

My thumbs, in other words, have not learned where the letters might be. I recognize it’s possible provided the keys stand out. That, sadly, is lacking on the newer touch-screen phones.

I expect any “solution” would not be accepted by most people. Quite simply, the generation driving the use of these things is not bothered by the same things which bother me. Nonetheless, I want a solution for me. I’m willing to train the muscle memory so I don’t have to look for the numbers, but it needs to be reliable across multiple devices. So…

I built a (very) rough device, and it works. Basically, it’s a modified eight-dot brailler. OK, let’s break these down before I expand.

A brailler is a device with one button per dot plus a button under a thumb for ‘blank’ (aka space bar). Traditional braille is six dot, but there’s been a lot of work (and there are lots of variations) for eight-dot braille. 64 (counting blank) vs 256 (same) different combinations solves a lot of minor annoyances. “space” is under one thumb and “backspace” is under the other. That, by the way, may change – I’ll explain in a minute. First I want to note that THANKFULLY I don’t have to design the coding. Unfortunately, there are several competing designs. In the long run I think the “best” solution, were this to become possible, would be to allow those who want to use another set do so as a software choice just as done by any computer keyboard. The standard I’m using is this one.

As I said, the buttons under the thumbs may change slightly. The current is simply backspace under the left and space under the right. A chord of the two (as per the 8dotbraille’s virtual keyboard recommendation) changes these two to movement – forward and backward, obviously. That basic principle will remain. However, I realized I might have the opportunity to bring more to the table. See, I’m hacking apart a game controller. For those who haven’t seen them, they include a couple of ‘clickable’ joysticks (one under each thumb), with a d-pad on the left and a quad of buttons on the right. They usually also have a pair of buttons on the front that tend to work as triggers, but I’ll set this aside a moment.

The thing is the basic layout of the joysticks and d-pad/quad buttons works and works well. Modifying the layout slightly to keep a generally ergonomic shape while adding four chord buttons isn’t going to be tremendously difficult (he says optimistically). The hard part for my testing it is going to be the wiring to USB – or maybe I’ll just use the mouse and keyboard ports. sigh.

Again, I don’t think this will become the Big Thing. I also don’t think it’s patentable – I’m just taking existing stuff and using it a bit differently. Still, I’m going to work on it. If I can get the basic and it ‘comes together’ the next stage would be using bluetooth instead of cable to connect. Because if THAT can be reached it can be made to work with the phones. heh – I have this weird picture of a fold out/collapsable pair of handles that can attach to an i-phone. Swing out to turn on the buttons… first things first. make my first working prototype.

[article edited to correct link and spelling]

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