- Small and lightweight
- Works with a limited range of hardware
- fiddly to set up
- does not function well in bright light
Handheld computers with integrated keyboards used to be quite common. But Psion abandoned this market, and Microsoft has allowed its Handheld PC variant of Windows CE to wither on the vine. This leaves users with few options -- in the UK, you're basically stuck with grey imports or obsolete hardware. External keyboards for handhelds are therefore quite popular, and the best of them allow for touch typing at reasonable speeds. But even the smallest of these folding keyboards represents a significant addition to your travel kit, and they often feel cramped to use. I.TECH (part of the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa group) has identified a gap in the market and come up with the Virtual Keyboard: this is a small unit that projects a keyboard onto any surface, and connects to a range of smartphones, handhelds and notebooks. It’s certainly innovative, but how well does it work?
The Virtual Keyboard is a multi-part piece of kit. The main unit is a 90g box measuring 9cm long by 3.4cm wide and 2.4cm deep. This projects a keyboard onto a flat surface using a laser, and senses keypresses via an infrared link. Tap a key on the projected keyboard, and the box knows what key you have tapped. Keystrokes are sent to your handheld via a cable that plugs into its serial connector. The use of a cable connection means that the Virtual Keyboard will only work with devices for which cables are supplied. Currently these are the O2 xda and xda II, Orange SPV e200, PalmOne Tungsten T3 and m505, and HP iPaq H2100, H5550 and H5455. You get a full set of cables, plus a standard serial cable for use with notebook and desktop computers. Additional devices may be supported in the future. Our tests were all carried out using an xda II. In addition to the projection box and cables, the package includes a CD with drivers and a user manual (in Microsoft Word format, so make sure you can read Word documents), a charger for the projector's battery, and a carrying case.
Setting up the Virtual Keyboard requires a driver to be installed. This provides access to various settings, including the light intensity of the keyboard (we assume the lowest of the three settings is the most battery-efficient), key repeat rate and timeouts. There are two timeouts: one lets the keyboard turn itself off after a specified idle time, while the other simply turns off projection, allowing a restart without needing to re-enable the keyboard. If the latter is set for a shorter period than the former, then simply waving your hand where the keyboard should be is enough to restart it. You can also configure the sensitivity of the keyboard. With this set too high you may find the keyboard fails to detect keypresses, with it set too low it may detect more actions than you intend. And to give you some sort of feedback while typing, the Virtual Keyboard supports configurable sound effects (keyclicks). The keys themselves are the usual full-size QWERTY arrangement with a number row above. There's a directional cursor on the bottom right edge, and some of the Shift key combinations are in unusual locations. The lack of a '£' could prove more annoying, though.
Early experience with the Virtual Keyboard was frustrating, as it wanted to send far more keypresses to the screen than we actually made. Things improved after a bit of fiddling with the sensitivity setting, but we still had to restrict our usual touch-typing speed to get the desired accuracy rate. We peaked at about 30 words a minute. It's worth noting that anything substantial placed between the projection unit and the keyboard may interfere with recognition. We thought the Virtual Keyboard was malfunctioning until we realised a pen sitting between the keyboard and the projector was causing the problem. There's also a general problem with ambient light. We carried out our test in an office, and found brown surfaces better than black, and in darker corners generally better than bright ones. Not surprising perhaps, given that the keyboard is a laser projection; however, it's unlikely to be usable next to a brightly lit window in an office, or on a train. External hardware keyboards generally incorporate a stand to prop up your handheld, making it easy to see text as it appears on-screen. The Virtual Keyboard's cable connection is to the handheld's docking port, which is generally on the bottom edge of the unit, and there's no stand provided. This makes it difficult to prop up your handheld for convenient viewing, and is a usability failing that I.TECH needs to address. As it stands, we'd be unlikely to choose the Virtual Keyboard over a hardware-based external keyboard for a handheld. Hardware keyboards are often cheaper, work with a wider range of devices and are much easier to use out of the box. However, I.TECH's device undoubtedly works, and we look forward to tracking its future progress. The £99.99 (inc. VAT) Virtual Keyboard is available in the UK from Internity.