Innovation is our new column that highlights the latest emerging technological ideas and where they may lead.
Cellphone users don't have it easy – many enter far more letters than numbers into their gadgets, but most phones still make you do so using a number pad. Meanwhile, the designers of smart phones seem determined to make touchscreen keyboards the norm before they have been fully perfected.
Although touch screens are growing in popularity with designers, tapping at images of buttons on a small, slippery surface does not provide a good user experience. Figuring out better ways to input text on touch screens is important for more than just phones too, as they become common in other places like desktop computers, gaming devices and coffee tables.
Recently some more innovative ideas have shown where the future of mobile touch-screen text input may lie. One that launched recently is Shapewriter – already available for the iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile devices.
It does away with the backwards-looking concept of pecking at images of keys on a glossy surface. A qwerty layout is still shown, but the user draws over it to link up the letters of a word they wish to write. The company behind Shapewriter says it has evidence this can be significantly faster than even a conventional touch keyboard – although at first glance, the shapes you draw even for relatively simple words seem elaborate.
Another approach is to use a phone's vibrate function to give an uncannily real illusion of using physical buttons. Stephen Brewster's team at the University of Glasgow, UK, achieve the illusion with split-second pulses of vibrations chosen to provide sensations that feel like pressing a button, or shifting from key to key.
Next week at the Computer Human Interaction 2009 conference in Boston, Massachusetts, the team will present results of user tests on a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet equipped with the technology. The system uses the feedback to allow you to press harder on the screen for uppercase letters.
This video showing a mobile computer controlled using an interface projected onto any surface, like your hand, gives one possible view of the more distant future. But ultimately entering text may stop being a physical task altogether.
We reported last year on the first "voiceless phone call", placed using a neckband that makes it possible for someone to think words and have a computer read or type them out. The device detects and translates nerve signals sent by the brain to the vocal cords when we merely think about speaking a sound.
Made by Ambient Corporation it has the potential to combine the discreet silence of texting with the speed and accuracy of spoken language.
Their product is likely to help people with problems like motor neurone disease first, but they plan to develop it into a commercial product targeted as devices like phones too. However, before that happens we can expect to see many more attempts to perfect the mobile touch screen keyboard.