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Now, if we could only shrink our fingers…

Now, if we could only shrink our fingers…

Are you tired of Graffiti(R)? Decades after students stopped taking calligraphy lessons, high-tech America must practice its handwriting again. The advent of PDAs has brought computing power into the vest pocket, but no one has yet figured out how to fit a full-sized computer keyboard into the package. So now Palm and Visor users must learn a peculiar hieroglyphics to do data entry. Still, most users find this stylus-scratching laborious but more reliable than the alternative-triple-tapping cell phone keys and hoping a predictive text algorithm guesses your meaning.

One solution is the portable keyboard that reduces to the same size as your PDA when folded in thirds. But many users complain that it saps their PDAs' batteries while still cramping their fingers. Another solution is the full-size, flexible keyboard that rolls up like a placemat when you're done. But you still can't fit a placemat in your shirt pocket, so it's just a partial fix.

A different approach is the PDA Pocket Keyboard(TM), launched in June by Cirque (Salt Lake City, UT), who claims to make 50% of the world's laptop touchpads. Smaller than the Blackberry wireless e-mail unit, the patent-pending keyboard provides its own power with two coin lithium batteries, and connects to the PDA's serial port. At 1.9 oz and 3.85 x 2.68 inches, it does not fold up, except for a retractable stand. It is sealed from moisture and dirt, and at $40, it is less than half the cost of foldable keyboards. It is marketed and branded by Fellowes (Itasca, IL), and is also available online at

In a demo, the keyboard proved to be fast and accurate for "hunt and peck" typing, though obviously too small for the full two-handed method. As opposed to mechanical, spring-loaded keys, it is a capacitive touchpad, reminiscent of touch-sensitive elevator buttons. But it's more advanced than elevators. Cirque's GlidePoint(R) technology uses a two-layer grid of electrodes connected to an ASIC. This grid detects capacitance changes between electrodes, caused by a passing human finger. The method means that a user can never hit two keys at once, since the PocketKeys(TM) software calculates the "centroid" point of each finger-strike on its keyboard grid, at a resolution of 1,000 points/inch.

"It's not something you'd want to write an essay on," admits Richard Woolley, Cirque's executive VP. "But it's great for writing simple text and e-mails. And it's durable, since there's nothing moving on it."

Woolley says he writes three times as fast on this keyboard as he can with Palm's Graffiti. And while the keyboard does sap some power from the enabled serial port, it supplies 30 hours of typing use on each pair of batteries. Cirque plans future applications of its technology through GlideSensor, a mylar sheet that can be glued under any thin, non-conductive surface (wood, plastic, etc.), and change that surface into a keyboard or touchpad.

Another tiny, full-function, alphanumeric keyboard for mobile devices is the Fastap(TM) Keypad from Digit Wireless (Cambridge, MA). At "one-third the area of a credit card," it is not used as independent hardware, but wherever you might find a standard telephone keypad, such as cell phone faces. Digit claims the keys are "effectively the same size as a desktop keyboard" since Fastap uses depth as a third dimension. In appearance, each of 12 phone keys is sunk between four alphabetical keys. In actual use, the numeric keys don't exist-they are generated whenever a user hits their four surrounding buttons at once. These convex buttons are designed so a single finger strike will activate a "quad-key" combination. Check out an online demo at Future applications of the technology include pagers, e-books, GPS devices, MP3 players, games, and Web TV remotes. The keys are available in any arrangement.

PDA Pocket Keyboard
List Price: $39.95 Cirque, 2463 South 3850 West, Suite A, Salt Lake City, UT 84120; Tel: (888) GLIDE-98; Fax: (801) 467-0208; or Enter No. 515 A similar product: Fastap(TM) Keypad Digit Wireless, 1770 Massachusetts Ave., Suite 177, Cambridge, MA 02140; Tel: (617) 423-6702; Fax: (617) 588-0300; or Enter No. 516
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