Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

Summary: Microsoft's product groups are busy crafting their answer(s) to the Apple iPad. But Microsoft Research is working on slate/tablet-related projects of its own, including a way to add physical keys to the backs of these kinds of mobile-computing devices.

SHARE:

Microsoft's product groups are busy crafting their answer(s) to the Apple iPad. But Microsoft Research is working on slate/tablet-related projects of its own, including a way to add physical keys to the backs of these kinds of mobile-computing devices.

Microsoft Research's RearType project is dedicated to finding a way affix keys to the backs of all kinds of tablets and slates, but in a way that users can reach them by gripping the sides of the devices.

Researchers have taken the two halves of a QWERTY keyboard and rotated the keys in a way that a user's thumbs remain on the front of the surface and the other keys are placed within reach of the thumbs. (Microsoft Research's shots of the front and back of a prototype device using RearType are featured to the right and can be expanded by clicking on the images.) An on/off button for activating/deactivating the keys to avoid  accidental typing is a must, the researchers note.

RearType is described in a new white paper, dated September 2010. That paper, entitled, "RearType: Text Entry Using Keys on the Back of a Device," is authored by two Microsoft researchers, one author from RWTH Aachen university in Germany and two authors from the University of Toronto.

James Scott, one of the Microsoft researchers on RearType, also worked on the Microsoft Research Menlo/Greenfield mobile project about which I blogged yesterday. The other Microsoft researcher, Shahram Izadi, has done work on Microsoft's SecondLight Surface computer, among other device-interaction projects.

The RearType paper describes the project as follows:

"Our goal is a system that provides the tactile feedback and familiarity of a regular keyboard without cluttering the front of the display, ameliorates the occlusion problem inherent in direct on-screen touch and pen input, does not use the valuable screen real-estate taken up by an on-screen keyboard, leverages users existing skills in touch-typing on a regular physical QWERTY keyboard, and allows for text entry in highly mobile usage scenarios."

After building a prototype, the researchers put it through its paces with 12 study participants who were expert QWERTY typists. According to the paper, with one hour of training, typing speed in English averaged 15.1 words per minute, which "was not statistically different from their performance with a touchscreen soft keyboard."

As with all Microsoft Research projects, there's no guarantee when or even if RearType will find its way into shipping products.

I am not a fan of a soft keyboard on a PC (though the one on the iPad i bought is a lot easier to use than I expected). I don't mind the mini-keyboard on my Kindle 2, though it does take up an awful lot of room on the device. Still, I'm not sure I'm ready for keys on the back of my slate. You?

Topics: Tablets, Hardware, iPad, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

61 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Good idea, but...

    this will present a serious challenge for industrial designers. How to make a sleek looking device without resembling a harmonica?
    honeymonster
    • I was thinking . . .

      @honeymonster

      that it reminded me more of an Accordian . . . . (Mama's got a squeezebox . . :) ).
      JLHenry
      • *sigh* now I'll NEVER get no rest :(

        @JLHenry
        ericesque
      • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

        @JLHenry thanks to the reminded me also. <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/in/belforduniversity">Belford University</a>
        bradyroy
      • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

        @JLHenry very informative idea is that, great shared. <a href="http://www.myspace.com/mustuniversity">Must University</a>
        bradyroy
    • The bigger problem is that MS is still trying to make it like a PC.

      They MUST give up on the PC paradigm if they are to ever come up with a decent tablet design.
      DonnieBoy
      • Not really true

        DonnieBoy, you may live under the assumption that everyone wants to be chained to a particular device or manufacturer, but really, a PC based tablet will do everything the other tablets will do, with the ability to do more.

        How is this a bad thing?
        John Zern
      • MS - why is this not a PC - we don't get it

        @DonnieBoy

        yes - agreed.

        The rear-type looks interesting - but to me it just looks like one of those design projects from a first year design student. It is not the first attempt at rearranging a keyboard.

        Reminds me of when Apple brought out an ergonomic keyboard - and the IT press went to town about the stupidity of doing such a thing, then MS brought out a similar but less adaptable version and the IT press went to town about MS being innovative and how nice of them to do such a thing.

        Seems as usual that MS has an idea, half baked and/or copied and the IT press loves it no matter what.

        @John Zern

        <i>DonnieBoy, you may live under the assumption that everyone wants to be chained to a particular device or manufacturer, but really, a PC based tablet will do everything the other tablets will do, with the ability to do more.</i>

        Do you not see the obvious in this that you wish to be chained to MS? and that you only want others not to be chained to Apple!!!

        And this is a bad thing - think for once will you about a world where you are not chained to PCs.

        Think that maybe those who use Apple, and therefore are not chained to MS - are in fact the free ones because they are not too scared to move away from the MS world!!!

        That many Apple users do so because they have used MS products and PCs and are in fact escaping that world.

        How is this a bad thing?
        richardw66
      • Pathetic ...

        @John Zern

        <i>but really, a PC based tablet will do everything the other tablets will do</i>

        This is where you (and Microsoft) have it so wrong. The iPad (and the sure-to-be-forthcoming Android-based and WebOS-based clones) aren't slates. They aren't tablets. They aren't something that's a lot like a PC, but smaller with a touchscreen. They aren't a "form factor" of something that you already use.

        They are altogether a different kind of computing device.

        Microsoft does not realize this. Consequently, Windows 7 "slates" (worst name ever - What is this "Little House on the Prairie"?) will fail miserably just like all of the other Windows Tablet PC Edition pieces of crap that have ever been made. Not only will they not do "everything the other tablets will do" in truth they will do NOTHING the other tablets will do.

        This keyboard is a total monstrosity and proof positive that Microsoft simply makes irrelevant legacy technology. It looks like a proof-of-concept from the mid-1990s.
        RationalGuy
      • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

        @DonnieBoy you i agree with you. <a href="http://twitter.com/riseuniversity">Rise University</a>
        bradyroy
    • AlphaUi innovative and intuitive slim design for back-typing

      AlphaUi provide a back-typing solution with reduced number of standard-size keys. It is intuitive to use thanks to an associated virtual keyboard displayed on the front.
      This is very easy to learn, immediat use.
      The design is smart and can be very slim.
      The targets are mobile tablets from 4 to 7inches. You can type 50WPM or more in true mobility, in any position (standing, sitting, lying down...) and in any places (indoors, outdoors or confined spaces...).
      New integrated typing system in next generation tablets!
      patricej
    • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

      @honeymonster good article , I added you in the Liked category.. thanks <a href="http://www.genericdruglist.net/">brand generic drug list</a>, <a href="http://www.genericdruglist.net/blog/muscle-relaxers.html">muscle relaxers list</a>, <a href="http://www.genericdruglist.net/blog/pain-drugs.html">pain medications list</a>, <a href="http://www.genericdruglist.net/blog/erectile-dysfunction-drugs.html">medication erectile dysfunction</a>, <a href="http://www.genericdruglist.net/blog/antidepressants.html">antidepressant drugs</a>, <a href="http://www.genericdruglist.net/blog/hair-loss-treatment.html">treatment for hair loss in men</a> for sharing the article!
      Peter38
  • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

    "After building a prototype, the researchers put it through its paces with 12 study participants who were expert QWERTY typists." Ok - so this may be fine for expert touch typers, but what about the rest of us?
    austegard
    • agreed

      @austegard Agreed - I don't see my mother using this.
      CobraA1
      • Feel the force

        @CobraA1

        Actually the problem may be that she does not see herself using it - most people like to see they keys. Touch typists feel the keys.
        richardw66
    • Suicide device

      Is Microsoft sending out a call for help? Are we watching a tech giant committing suicide here? Kin, Menlo, and this monstrosity is what they are 'researching'? It's gotten where beating up on Microsoft isn't any fun anymore, it's just sad.
      dheady@...
      • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

        @dheady@...

        Dude, it's a research project. And it's a research project by ubergeeks, not design students, so fugly is not a surprise either.

        Do you know how you end up inventing something cool? By trying a lot of different avenues, then following up the ones that seem the most promising. In the last few years we've seen Microsoft pour reasearch into tablets, multitouch tables (Surface), multitouch walls (a possible successor to Surface, sort of like a whiteboard computer), and computers that you can operate from across the room using voice and movement (Kinect).

        Will anything world-changing come of it all? Too soon to tell.

        For tablets, it's clear that while an iPad might be a great thing to have with you wherever you go, it's not exactly the world's greatest device for field-entering data. Microsoft hopes they can make good tablets as it is (TBD), but also wants to do reasearch to try to solve problems for people who actually want to enter things, and not just sit around consuming media.
        wanorris
    • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

      That's funny. "Expert" QWERTY typists only averaging 15 words a minute!? The ones I know are above 55 on a regular unaltered keyboard. Significant drop.
      jjbro11
      • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

        @jjbro11,

        It sounds like the research hasn't exactly panned out yet, if they can't beat an onscreen soft keyboard yet. Perhaps they have better ideas for a next generation, perhaps this was a dead end.
        wanorris
      • RE: Microsoft's RearType: Physical keys to the iPad, Kindle and tablet kingdoms?

        @jjbro11

        Were those typists you know doing 55 WPM after using a keyboard for 1 hour?

        Would be interested to see what the WPM were if they used the device for a week.


        It looks like someone took the idea of the AlphaGrip device and is trying to merge it into a tablet.

        (disclaimer - I have no connection with alphagrip other than using one).

        http://www.alphagrips.com/
        barts185