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Making It

A Famous Inventor's Forgotten Idea: A One-Handed Touch-Screen Keyboard

After a presentation that defined computer UI’s for 40 years, one idea got forgotten. A designer at Teague resuscitates it.

In 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave what’s come to be called "the mother of all demos." In a single, live presentation, his team introduced watershed ideas like the computer mouse, hypertext, and video conferencing—ideas that stick with us to this day, every day.

But one idea from that presentation fell through the cracks. It was the chorded keyboard, a five-button peripheral that would allow someone to type one-handed, much as if playing chords on the piano, leaving the other hand to use a mouse at all times.

By combining keys into chords, 32 unique characters or commands that can be summoned from just five buttons. (You could press the first and second button for an A, press the first and third button for a B and so on.)

Adam Kumpf, from Teague Labs, laments that "our ability to input information into computers (and to others via the Internet) is currently limited by our interfaces." So he rebuilt the chorded keyboard for touch-screen devices. (You can demo it for yourself right here in iOS or Android.)

"I remember hearing Doug Engelbart give a talk a few years ago at MIT and discuss his disappointment that the chorded keyboard was quickly overlooked after his 1968 demo of the NLS," Kumpf tells us. "There have been many variations on his one-handed keyboard since by researchers and hackers alike, but the specialized hardware and steep learning curve has kept it from being accessible to most of the world."

The original chorded keyboard was an unlabeled box of five skinny buttons—an approachable but quietly complex design that would be several times harder to decipher than an unlabeled QWERTY keyboard.

Kumpf’s touch-screen keyboard has several advantages over the original. For one, you can see how your chords affect letter outcome in real time, allowing you to learn the system in a less punishing way. And it can also be positioned anywhere you want on a page—appearing wherever you tap five fingers at once—offering an incredible amount of flexibility while browsing the web.

Now, that aforementioned learning curve is still very real. Testing Kumpf’s keyboard was a bit discouraging, as its logic proved to be a taunting half step from intuitive. It’s an idea ever so more clever than its user (or this user, at least). But the chorded keyboard is certainly the sort of tool someone could learn to master. And that learning could be incredibly worthwhile for those of us who prefer the expediency of keystrokes to intuitive-but-slow dragging and dropping.

Think about it: we’re talking about an interface with exponential possibilities. If the five-button keyboard gives us 2^5 binary combinations (or 32), realize that a 10-button version could offer 2^10 (or 1024) different letters and commands. Scale the idea to the typical 100-button QWERTY on our laptops, and your options are labeled in scientific notation.

Just when you thought typing classes were a dated idea …