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dot life Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
The keyboard that isn't there
At work on an infrared keyboard

Work on the move? Forget laptops and fiddly data entry devices; soon an uncluttered tabletop will be all you need to set up a mobile office.
The problem with pocket technology, such as PDAs and mobile phones, is that they are too small to incorporate a full keyboard.

This leads to alternative, and often clumsy, forms of data input such as hand-writing recognition or typing text messages on a numeric keypad.

The light keyboard
Simply beam the keyboard onto a table top
Now there's a solution - a light-projected keyboard.

Suddenly, an uncluttered desk, kitchen table, or pull-down tray on a train or plane can be converted into a keyboard.

Canesta, from San Jose in Silicon Valley, has designed what it calls an integrated projection keyboard for mobile and wireless devices. Israeli developers demonstrated a similar device at the technology fair, CeBIT, earlier this year.

Basically it's a keyboard made of light, which heralds an end to the days of those working on the move having to lug around numerous gadgets.

Office in your pocket

Jim Spare, Canesta's vice-president of product marketing, told BBC News Online the infrared keyboard is easy to use and, of course, weighs nothing.

You just type on the table as if it were a keyboard

Jim Spare
"You simply take your PDA and put it onto the table. It shines a keyboard onto the table and you just type on the table as if it were a keyboard.

"The electronic perception technology watches your fingers move and translates that into keystrokes in the device. It can also do mouse functions so you get the ease of a full-size keyboard, but it appears anywhere you want to use it."

The keyboard is made possible by a tiny sensor fitted with three chips - one to beam the keyboard image, the other two to pick up the movement of typing fingers. That typing movement interacts with the light and sends signals to the sensor.

Man with old phone
Cutting the load for those who work on the move
The only drawback for the touch typist is that you can't rest your fingers on the keyboard as you would normally, but Mr Spare says that 15 minutes of practice makes perfect.

"I'm a touch typist and have had to learn to rest my palms on the desk and not my fingers on the keyboard. But I can still type with all my fingers and don't have to hunt and peck.

"The speed is limited by your ability and proficient typists can still get 70 to 80 words a minute."

Ray of light

The key to the possible success of such an application is the price, for no longer does projecting an image rely on camera set-ups and substantial computer power.

Instead it uses low-cost semiconductor-based sensors. Mr Spare says this means the company can sell the technology to the manufacturers of mobile devices for about $35. He expects it to be available in the first half of 2003.

This virtual keyboard has the potential to make both mobile phones and PDAs much more usable - good news for the battered communications industry, says Andrew M Seybold of Outlook 4.

"The ability to finally do PC-like work on a mobile device will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the wireless market."

playstation controls
Gamers could benefit from the new technology
But the projected keyboard is just the tip of the iceberg, says Kevin Werbach, co-organiser of PC Forum.

"Giving machines such perceptual capabilities would make possible a whole new class of devices and products."

The automotive industry is said to be interested in creating three dimensional images in real time for airbag deployment. The technology could be used in security systems. And video games could be played using gestures instead of controls.

Your comments so far:

I would imagine this would cause damage to your fingers. A keyboard gives (the keys move), a table wouldn't. Has there been any long term studies in to the health issues?
Robert Scurr, UK

The market for PDAs will only pick up when you get good, enterprise level software for them. We already have a communication infrastructure in GPRS but that is still too imature to use. The other problem is that battery life for a good PDA is very short which limits its practicality.
Chris, UK

Why don't they go the whole hog and project the screen as well? We would have a tiny PDA then and wouldn't have to stare at a tiny screen.
Ted Whitton, UK

Won't work very well on wooden/rough surfaces or anywhere you actually use a PDA like cafes/trains/planes. The solid foldable (stowaway type) are much better. However, light sensors may be fun for music keyboard applications, back to Jean Michel Jarre days who first demonstrated this.
Simon, London, UK

Sitting in a cafe with your PDA a foot-and-a-half away from you whilE concentrating on furiously typing a report might be just too tempting for a light-fingered thief...
James, UK

What happens when the sun shines on the keyboard. You can't tell me that the projector is brighter than natural sunlight. I guess this is for vampires and night owls only!...
Hokemon, UK

Come on guys, this is fantastic. I am currently typing on a laptop I have lugged to Siberia, imagine no keyboard, use anywhere, and of course it is going to be possible to find somewhere to use it on planes and trains and airports isn't it? How many of those have real wooden furniture? I think this will really take off. Remember it will also be difficult to spill beer or coffee on these, which makes it an absolute winner in my book.
Andrew Simmons, currently Russia, heart in Wales

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Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

25 Jun 01 | dot life
28 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
14 Aug 01 | Europe
09 Nov 00 | Science/Nature
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