The death of the keyboard

Computers have been around for the best part of 70 years, but most of the pieces that make up a modern PC are considerably younger. Mice, LCD screens, integrated circuits, optical disks and even printed circuit boards were all invented much more recently, certainly long after the first computing machines. The one exception is the ubiquitous keyboard, and it is ancient.

The death of the keyboard

The first keyboard appears to have been invented in Britain by Henry Mill in 1714. Although he patented his idea, he never built one, so Americans like to claim that William Austin Burt of Chicago was the true inventor in 1829. He did build one, but it wasn’t very good and never became a product, so perhaps the real credit goes to the Remington Corporation, which produced the first commercial typewriter in 1874, incorporating a keyboard design by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee.

The technology may have progressed a long way since then – from clanking metal levers to miniature electronic switches – but drumming your fingers on a set of keys has remained the dominant way of entering data to this day. Time for a change perhaps? And while we are at it, who says that fingers have to be the only input interface? What about all those other body parts lying idle while we sit in front of the screen? Today’s interface designers have plans for putting the rest of you to work as well. Yes, even shuffling in your seat will be made meaningful and productive.

The death of the keyboard has been predicted many times and nothing much has come of it so far, but we are finally getting to the stage where serious alternatives are available. Some are aimed at highly specialised applications, but others might yet take over as viable alternatives for mass-market computing. What they need to overcome, though, is not just the inertia of familiarity, but the fact that fingers are our most agile and manoeuvrable appendages. It is no surprise that almost all musical instruments are played with the fingers, aided just by the occasional pedal.

Curtains for QWERTY

That’s not to say, though, that a grid of separate keys is the only way to make use of our fingers. One idea that has been around since the late 1970s is the chordic keyboard. Just like playing chords on a musical instrument, you type by pressing combinations of five or six keys that are laid out in an arc to match the natural positions of the fingertips.

Invented by movie director Cy Endfield (Zulu, Universal Soldier) with engineer Chris Rainey, the chordic keyboard was originally marketed as the Microwriter, a pocket device that could be used as a standalone word processor and the text later downloaded to a PC. With no need for the fingers ever to reach from their resting position, its supporters claimed it was faster and more comfortable than the traditional keyboard. In the right hands, so to speak, it certainly worked well and the Microwriter acquired a loyal following. But learning the chords wasn’t easy for everyone, and the public, on the whole, stuck with the familiar QWERTY and two-fingered hunt-and-peck.

The original Microwriter, and its follow-up the AgendA PDA, ceased production years ago, but the concept lives on in its latest incarnation as the CyKey – a small self-contained pad of Microwriter keys that links by infrared to your PC, Mac or PDA.

Chordic keyboards led inevitably to the chordic glove. This does away with fixed keys altogether. Instead, you wear a glove with sensors built into the tips of all the fingers. Now you can type with one hand on any surface, at any angle and even move your hand while you are doing it. An interesting idea, but so far none of these glove arrangements have made it onto the market.

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