Typing without keys

· technology ·

A few months ago, I wrote about the new MacNTouch keyboard. After a long period of thinking about it, an even longer period of trying to find the cheapest place to order one from, and what seemed — because of my impatience and excitement — like a geological epoch, I finally slid my hands over a MacNTouch. Part of my reason for wanting one was because I'd started to have some problems with pains in my hands while typing, and I didn't want it to get too bad before I did anything about it. But if I'm brutally honest, a large part of my decision can by summed up by the phrase "because it's cool".

It was certainly well worth the wait. I've had a few days with it now, and I like it a lot. When I get more proficient at typing accurately with it, I think that it will become indispensible. It's basically a drop-in replacement for the keyboard which ships with the 15" PowerBook keyboard, and once fitted, it sits very nicely in the same space. Due to some Apple imposed constraints, the keyboard can't use the internal keyboard connection, but the solution of a very flat ribbon cable which passes under the screen and plugs in flush to one of the USB ports is pretty neat. The keyboard itself is like a huge and much more sophisticated touch pad. Apart from 8 little bumps to identify the 8 keys of the home row, the keyboard is totally flat and smooth, and has the keys marked on in curving rows, with the two sides separated by vertically arranged function keys. It has very sophisticated software which allows it to distinguish which fingers are being placed on it, and the timing of the taps or slides.

This allows for some very nifty things. First, you can mouse and type on the same surface; the software interprets touches of single fingers on the surface as characters being typed, and touches where more than one finger is involved as 'gestures'. So, by default, the index and middle fingers starting to slide on the right hand side of the keyboard is interpreted as moving the mouse pointer. Tapping the first three fingers is a double click, sliding them is a click and drag, and tapping the thumb, ring and little fingers is a right-click. This is just the start; other more complex gestures perform file operations like New, Open and Save, editing tasks like Cut, Copy and Paste, scrolling pages or selecting text. After only a few moments of using these gestures, you appreciate how useful they are. I think it helps that the Fingerworks developers sensibly chose what I can only describe as 'physical mnemonics' for the most common gestures. For example, opening a file is done by placing the thumb and first three fingers on the surface and twisting them clockwise, like unscrewing a bottle top. Closing is the reverse (screwing the bottle top back on). Likewise, saving is accomplished by using the same fingers to pinch together, like gathering loose change off a surface, and creating a new file is the reverse. Someone on the Fingerworks forums mentioned that the gestures make you feel like you're using the Jedi Force, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that. It's also somewhat reminiscent of the PADDs they use on Star Trek, which can be the only possible explanation for me finding myself muttering "Engage!" under my breath, and making noises like the Enterprise going to Warp Factor 9. I can tell you, the simple act of reading email has never been so entertaining!

While mousing and the gestures are intuitively easy to adapt to, typing on the MacNTouch takes a bit more getting used to. It isn't quite as difficult as I was expecting, but my brain is having to retrain itself to find keys in slightly different positions, and not to rely on any tactile feedback. I touch type, but have always cheated a little bit by using typing T, Y, G, H, B, and N with either index finger. I can't do that now as the two halves of the keyboard are separated by the function keys, so I'm typing less accurately than I normally would. The software in the keyboard is actually very tolerant of errors, and if you hit between two keys, it tries to guess what you meant using the letter combinations found in English. This works pretty well most of the time, but you can turn it off if it gets in the way. The key (sorry, no pun intended) to accuracy is to drop your fingers back on to the keyboard frequently to re-center them.

The whole experience of typing on the keyboard (once you've got used to just touching they keys very gently) is a very sensual one. I thought that I might miss the sensation of depressing the keys, but actually, the warm, smooth surface is quite a tactile delight. I was never a real key-basher, but using this keyboard has encouraged me to be even more gentle with my typing, which in an odd way makes me feel a bit calmer. There's no sound of clacking keys or clicking mouse buttons, just the soft drop of fingertips on the surface, which sounds like gentle rain on the window. Perhaps this is 'Zen typing'?

The keyboard has a few other side benefits too:

  • The chords you can use to replace common keys are actually much more convenient than the originals. For example, you can shift by touching four fingers of either hand on the home row. This saves a lot of inaccurate stretching with the little finger for the shift key.
  • It's really easy to keep clean. I know from bitter experience that prawn mayonnaise from a hastily eaten sandwich is a devil to get out of a conventional keyboard, and stray crisps can give an unpleasantly crunchy action for days. This one comes up as good as new with a damp cloth.
  • Fingerworks have done a very sensible thing by making the function keys work without pressing the 'Fn' key. On the standard PowerBook keyboard, you pressed the function keys directly to increase the volume, brightness and so on, but had to hold the Fn key to trigger the actual function keys. In my opinion, this was the wrong way round, and something that irritated me because I use them for direct access to my ["VirtualDesktops":http://www.codetek.com/php/virtual.php]. Switching desktops one-handed is really easy now, which is an enormous help when dragging and dropping between desktops.
  • I find having a delete key under my left thumb Insanely Great — if you tend to hit the space bar with your left thumb, your mileage may vary.
  • Scrolling pages by dragging four fingers of your right hand up and down the surface is even more fun than a mouse scroll wheel.
  • Vim has suddenly become much easier to use; instead of having to reach my left little finger to the Outer Hebrides of the keyboard to hit escape, I can tap the first three fingers of both hands above the home row.

There's a review of one of Fingerworks' other zero-force keyboards here — the form factor is a bit different, but the software driving it is the very similar.