Keyboard interfaces are appearing on new surfaces, including iPad screens, televisions and a plethora of other information devices. It makes sense. As devices get smarter, we need better ways of communicating with them. Remember VCR interfaces? Remember the blinking, red 12:00 your father never figured out how to fix?
Those days seem so far away….or do they? These new surfaces are most often inadequately equipped to provide the user with the kind of feedback we expect to receive to assure us that we’re comfortably progressing in typing out our messages, passwords, game-key combinations, etc. correctly. Some traditional keyboards have grooves and the ‘F’ and ‘J’ for orientation purposes. As well, most of us become accustomed to the feeling the pinky finger gets when it presses on a particular key at a particular angle. The impression our senses get reinforce comfort levels. To me, the perfect keyboard was the keyboard where each key had a slightly different ‘input personality’. Pressing the “L” made a slightly different sound and had a slightly different feel, than the “;” or “P” key. Keyboard makers didn’t intentionally build this kind of subtle feedback into the keyboard – it just so happened that keyboards, by nature of their physical manufacturing, had certain feedback traits. These feedback traits, or nuances were especially helpful when I performed tasks that required a QWERTY interface, but I wasn’t using the keyboard to type ‘words’. Gaming key combinations, accounting, etc….other tasks seemed to call on another part of the brain that relied more heavily on the ‘feel’ and ’sound’ of the keys, and less on the traditional QWERTY word method. Enter stage the new Apple keyboards. Flat, supposedly more ergonomic, still prone to subtly different sounds from the right to the left side of the keyboard, but much less dependable when it comes to tactile feedback. I have to look down at the keyboard to find my “F” and “J”. Once found, I’m in good shape for communication in full sentences. But it’s been a much harder road to travel when I call upon my keyboard to be the interface to a key-combination-centric game, Mac specific key-shortcuts or even programming.
So you can imagine the frustration I felt when I realized the iPhone keyboard had NO tactile feedback function. Some smartphones do provide users with the ability to turn ‘Haptics’ on. It’s an on-off toggle that essentially provides touch-vibration on the stroke of a key. The same level of vibration on all keys. Boo. But I need more. So, bear with me as I propose an idea. I call it “Flexible Haptics”. What if, depending on your need for tactile feedback, you could visually set the level of vibration for your keys? So you’re an ardent mobile gamer? Choose only specific keys to provide strong vibrational feedback, while others don’t provide any. So, you find that your very fat thumbs often miss the exact location of the middle range letters? Set the middle zone to strong haptic feedback and create a range that ends with no haptic feedback at the edges. Programmer who spends most of the time on the special character range? Set the most oft-used special characters with strong haptics, and range haptics down on frequency of usage. So you’re a Key-Shortcut power user in Photoshop? You get the point.
Of course, there is another step that’s probably less realistic in the short term. But types of vibration may give us more felxibility in creating ideal forms in which to customize the QWERTY experience. I’m multitasking – One vibration set is for photoshop shortcuts, a different vibration is for general OS commands whereas yet another is for gaming. In conclusion, I think Ms Wilcox would be deeply proud. She’d never admit to it, but this post would most certainly provide her with enough impetus to share another wondeful surfing story. She loved the Peruvian coast. She made my typing experience unique because she personalized the mundane – and in doing so, she made it special. Via her delivery, she gave me the chance to personalize the typing class. The Haptic experience is different, but the same. Tactile feedback is important to the way I learn and communicate. I’ll need tactile feedback to be integrated into new technologies so that I can stop having to reach for how the technology needs for me behave….and I can continue to be….just me.