The Apple iPad keyboard offers a reasonably good touch-typing experience — if the tablet is resting on your lap or on a tablet at a 45 degree angle. But try entering text while you’re holding the tablet and you’ll be stuck trying to stretch your thumbs across the screen as if it were an enormous iPhone.

Microsoft Research is looking at another method for entering text on tablets. They’ve slapped together a tablet prototype with a full QWERTY keyboard placed on the back of the device. That way you can hold the tablet with both hands to look at the screen, and reach your fingers around the back to type.

After using the “RearType” system for about an hour, test subjects were able to type at about 15 words per minute. That’s pretty lousy by real-world standards, but it sounds like it’s something you could get used to over time. After all, touch typists don’t have to look down at the keyboard to enter text on a standard PC. Once you know where the keys are on the back of a tablet, there’s no reason you should have to see them to accurately enter text either.

The benefit of a RearType style system over a virtual on-screen keyboard is that you get tactile feedback as you type. On the other hand, it adds bulk to a tablet and it looks kind of ridiculous — although to be fair, we’re only looking at a prototype built for testing purposes here.

Still, if this kind of thing catches on, maybe people will stop complaining that Augen placed the Home, Menu, Back, and Search buttons for the GenTouch78 Android tablet on the back of the unit.

via ZDNet

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11 replies on “Tablets of the future may have physical keyboards — on the back”

  1. This marriage of a backside keyboard seemed cool at first to me, then I thought about it, and now I hate it.

    To me, one of the things that tablets have going for them is that they have (with a few exceptions) a entirely software configurable interface. More than most computers the way the user interacts with the device changes based on the task at hand. I think a dedicated keyboard detracts from that.

    Additionally, most of the tablets have bluetooth. USE IT. Here’s a concept: Build a tablet binder type case with a optional bluetooth mobile keyboard in it for those who feel the need to do text entry. Then you don’t add bulk to a device that SHOULD be trying to strike the optimal balance between usability, size, and weight. Also you don’t permanently tether the tablet to a mode of entry that may cause as many issues as it purports to solve (back clicking when you set the device down, etc), and doesn’t force users to learn an entirely new memory reflex system to put words onto an electronic page, for all the times that you DON’T NEED THE KEYBOARD.

    Honestly if you need a permanently attached keyboard, buy a convertible tablet PC. If you need a media consumption device with a larger screen and (hopefully someday they’ll start adding this) more computational and graphics power than a smart phone, get a tablet.

  2. I think, I would rather not use a tablet then to use that!

    And, I would say most people would feel the same. “Oh nice for some people, but not for me.” they would say while they grimiced. You can be taught to use to all sorts of things, but convincing poeople they ‘should learn’ the above seems impossible.

  3. Why not a chordic keyboard? Only 10 keys total, and it also allows for one handed use. It also doesn’t take long to learn, and can be as quick, or quicker than QWERTY

  4. It is all about getting used to. But what about complications? For example, if you leave it to rest on the desk or while carring it in your bag? Unmeant clicks could spoil everything actually.

  5. Somehow it reminds me of an old Linux tablet, I think it was called Noah, sorry I cant remenber any more details.

  6. If you stay with these type of tablet stories, you’ll catch my ear for sure. I find the whole segment somewhat comical and this story/concept simply feeds that amusement.

  7. “Tactical feedback” makes me think of someone setting up a breaching charge to jailbreak their tablet. Fire in the hole!

    (I know you meant tactile)

  8. “The Apple iPad keyboard offers a reasonably good touch-typing experience…”

    Do you mean touchscreen typing? Following the actual definition of “touch typing”, no slate or tablet ever made has edged remotely close to a reasonably good touch-typing experience.

    I like the direction of this research. I’ve actually seen similar and related projects before, but there’s that whole NDA thing. Off-screen input devices always add value to the usability of a device, especially those with touchscreens. Having the display of a device double as its input source is awfully dumb from a user interface perspective. Until we get past this current generation of rigid screens (we will), adjustments like this will have to do.

  9. There goes the hunt-and-peck’ers! But seriously, I can see this being a real problem for folks with disabilities. The whole purpose of a tablet is ease of use, point and click. Putting any of the keys on the back side, not to mention splitting them up, just creates a giant bottleneck.

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