A Punch in the Interface

It's 2008. Why am I still using a keyboard?

by / April 8, 2008

I was sitting at my desk recently, stupidly staring at an empty Word document. I'd been racking my brain for an hour (all part of the creative process, Boss) trying to come up with a good subject for this column. Soon I gave up, slumped over and held my head in my hands. I was staring at my keyboard - my mind almost blank.

The only thought I had was trying to identify the countless bits of junk that had made their way between the keys. As I pondered how all that disgusting detritus got in there, I sensed an idea developing. Suddenly a question popped into my brain. Why are we still using keyboards?

The QWERTY concept has been around since the 1870s. Since then, the way we interface with typewriters, computers and mobile phones has remained largely unchanged. Indeed, many mobile phone makers call attention to the fact that their device features a standard, albeit tiny, keyboard. Of course, a few innovations, such as the mouse and the stylus have come along, but almost all of our devices still demand we type to accomplish a task.

If you recall, back in the early and mid-1990s, virtual reality (VR) was going to change the way we used computers. Soon, we were promised, we'd all don special VR goggles and manipulate technology with virtual hands. None of that really panned out, which is why I write this column on a cheap, unsanitary keyboard.

There are a number of promising technologies out there that may one day wean us off the keyboard teat. Touchscreens, for example, have revolutionized many industries - from the movie theater box office to your local Burger King. The Apple iPhone is also a wonderful example of what can be achieved with some imagination, engineering and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Other technologies that pledged to change our relationship with computers have failed to meet their potential. For example, high-quality voice-to-text software for consumers is tough to come by. There are some well-regarded products out there, but shouldn't we be able to just tell our computers what we want to do by now? For a hilarious example of a Microsoft voice recognition demonstration gone wrong, see the YouTube video.

Though Microsoft may struggle with voice recognition, the company is also responsible for the most impressive new interface I've ever seen. Microsoft Surface, a tabletop PC with no mouse or keyboard, takes touchscreen to a level many of us might wish it had been years ago. Surface is much more than tapping virtual buttons. The interface recognizes the touch of not only humans, but other machines as well. Place a digital camera on Surface and the computer recognizes the device, allowing users to create and explore with their fingertips.

But it will be some time before technology like Surface makes its way to my desk. So if you'll excuse me, I've got Doritos crumbs I need to pick out from under C, V, B, N, M and the space bar.


Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.