friday-rant
IT & Systems Management

Rant: Eulogy for a Keyboard? Not Yet

Let's start from first principles. Assume that the main purpose of an input device is to get information from the user into the computer as quickly and efficiently as possible. How would you achieve that?

One of the fastest and most efficient methods of human-to-human interaction is speech. It has evolved over millennia and is remarkably subtle and efficient in getting across complex ideas. But it's not hugely popular when using computers. Some of the reasons for that are the problems of background noise, software training, correction of mistakes and the massive processing grunt required to analyse people's voices and make sense of them. Our brains are phenomenally good at this. Computers less so.

Still, speech recognition technology does work. In fact it can work with over 98% efficiency once trained. So why don't more people use it for anything other than asking Siri to find the nearest Burger King, or dictating a rigidly-structured document into a word-processor? Various IT pundits persist in blaming the technology but that's really not the issue. The problem is two-fold: the environment and human physiology.

Picture an office in which everyone's talking at once. It would be an absolute nightmare, impossible to hear yourself think. Now picture an office in which everyone could hear exactly what you were doing on your computer. That wouldn't be much fun either. "Computer: draft an email, then open my Facebook page and also open a separate browser window to Today's Most Idiotic Cat Pictures, and... what are you all looking at?"

Couple that with the prospect of talking all day long, when talking for more than an hour at a time is likely to put a serious strain on your vocal chords, and we can see why voice recognition is never going to be the ideal input medium for computers.

Mice, trackpads, trackpoints, etc.? They have their places, but they're secondary input methods. Nobody – with the obvious exception of people with physical disabilities and restricted movement – would use a trackball or other pointing device to select letters on a virtual keyboard. It would be far too time-consuming compared to other methods.

And now, the input device du jour, the touchscreen. Laptop and desktop PC manufacturers have been adding these to their products in desperate emulation of the success of this interface on smartphones and tablets, but it doesn't work. And once again, the reason it doesn't work has nothing to do with the maturity and capability of the technology. It's a human physiology issue.

Imagine yourself doing some photo editing and wanting to highlight the subject's eyes to reduce red-eye. You could lift your hand off the keyboard to the mouse, use your laptop's trackpad or actually raise your hand to the screen and select the required area. If you choose the third option, several things will happen: you will burn more energy, you will begin to strain the muscles in your shoulder and you will leave a greasy smudge on the screen.

It's the muscle strain that's important here. Lifting your arm and pointing is a natural thing to do, but not all the time. Millions of computer users worldwide suffer from RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome due to mouse and keyboard use, and that's with the weight of their arms mostly supported by a wrist-rest or desk. Repeating similar movements with the whole weight of the arm supported solely by the shoulder is a recipe for long-term pain.

The touch interface makes more sense on tablets and phones because these are held and supported differently, though even here it has its limits, changing the device from a truly interactive one – where the user is in charge – to a more passive experience. Tablets are interactive, of course, but the nature of on-screen keyboards means they can never be as ergonomic or immediate as a proper keyboarded machine. Yes, you probably could type your entire novel on an iPad, but you'd be an idiot (or an Apple-sponsored journalist) for doing so when a proper tactile keyboard would make it so much easier.

This is why the death of the keyboard has been greatly exaggerated, and touch-screens on conventional computers are largely a waste of money. By contrast, some of today's keyboards are lovely to use, diminishing the barrier between mind and machine. Anyone who needs to do proper work will resort to the tried and tested method of human-machine interface, something that the majority of people can use all day, every day without fear of serious muscle strain.

So until thought-recognition devices appears on the market, type on, dear reader. Type on.

 

Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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