COMDEX: Virtual keyboards let you type in air

Call it air guitar meets computer keyboard. Two firms here at Comdex, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Senseboard, are showing off gizmos that attach to your hands and track your finger movements so you can type without a keyboard to input data into a personal digital assistant or other handheld device.

Both products are meant to meet the needs of mobile computer users struggling with cumbersome, tiny, or nonexistent keyboards. Senseboard plans to ship its Senseboard keyboardless keyboard early next year priced at about US$150. The Samsung product, called Scurry, will be available first in Korea and is scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. in early 2003, priced at about $50.

To watch the devices in use is freaky, to say the least. A young man hunched over a counter at the Senseboard booth was typing in thin air on what appeared to be an invisible keyboard. The developers envision subway cars filled with commuters typing in midair as they key messages into their mobile phones, Pocket PCs, or Palm devices.

Really Hands-On

To use the Senseboard device, you simply slip a soft rubber pad onto each palm and start typing as if a keyboard was in front of you. A demo of the product didn't work so well, however, and produced the gibberish "DNiSP" when the tester was asked to type "Comdex."

The Senseboard product clearly needs work. Representatives say the poor performance demonstrated for show attendees is not typical. Senseboard works by tracking the muscle movements in the palm of the hand. When you extend your left pinky finger in midair and strike it down as if you were going to strike the "Q" key Senseboard displays the letter "Q" on the monitor.

Samsung's Scurry works by attaching motion sensors to each finger. It doesn't detect muscle movement, but rather uses gyroscopic technology to detect angular movements of fingers through space. This approach works better: Demonstrations on the show floor were far more impressive than its competitor's performance in terms of accuracy. However, both devices are too bulky. Nonfunctional prototypes of the final products are much smaller.

Just a Start

Both models demonstrated this week are wired. However, vendors say by the time their products become commercially available they will support the wireless Bluetooth protocol. Also, both products require specialized software for handheld devices. For example, Senseboard software includes a dictionary program that predicts words based on common grammatical sentence structures to boost keying accuracy.

Clearly, both companies are pioneering a brave, new, slightly weird world of technology that is still young in development. The approach that both companies are taking has strong roots in the futuristic trend of wearable computers. But operating their products successfully is clearly going to take some practice.

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Tom Spring

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