Two Cents: Next-Gen Keyboard

Look ma, no keys!

by / March 2, 2005
Keybowl's orbiTouch sure doesn't look like any input device I've ever used -- instead of the comforting and familiar QWERTY keyboard layout, I was confronted with two hand-sized domes.

Each individual dome can be slid into any of eight positions (imagine a compass's four cardinal points -- north, east, south and west -- and the other diagonal directions between those four). A person makes a "keystroke" by sliding the two domes into one of their eight respective positions. If I slid one dome straight up and the other dome straight right, I would "type" the letter "t."

The orbiTouch Keyless Keyboard, as it's officially called, is designed with repetitive motion injuries in mind, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. The orbiTouch reduces the motions suspected of leading to such injuries by forcing users to rely on the bigger muscles of the arms and shoulders.

The orbiTouch does double duty as a mouse. Lightly pressing down the right dome activates the mouse function; the pointer is steered across the screen using the right dome, and mouse "clicks" are replicated by moving the left dome horizontally in either direction for left or right clicks and up for a middle click.

I was slightly unhappy with the mouse functionality. The cursor can't be moved on a diagonal line, forcing users to move the cursor only on straight horizontal or vertical lines --like an Etch A Sketch.

I received a user's guide and training literature with the orbiTouch, as well as a laminated "QWERTY dome slide guide" to remind me how to make letters. The company recommends 45 minutes of practice per day for five days to master the orbiTouch sufficiently for normal tasks.

I got a little scared when I read the cover letter from Keybowl, especially the part that said, "As you work with the orbiTouch, keep in mind that the learning curve will vary from person to person based upon physical and cognitive ability."

Being a typical man, I disregarded the training literature, plugged the orbiTouch into the back of my PC and started typing. Propping the slide guide below my monitor helped a lot as I learned which way to move the domes to type letters. The first simple e-mail I typed -- all of two paragraphs with a few sentences in each -- took about 10 minutes.

But after a couple of sessions, I found myself getting faster as I memorized the dome patterns for making letters. Keybowl took care to create intuitive dome movements for particular letters. An "e" is created by moving both domes straight up; an "i" by moving the left dome up and the right dome down; and an "h" by moving the left dome straight right and the right dome straight left.

If you think about it, the "h" key is nearly smack dab in the middle of a regular QWERTY keyboard, so sliding the left and right domes toward the center of the orbiTouch is reminiscent of the "h" key's location.

Keybowl said users can expect to hit typing speeds of 30-40 words per minute. Though not blazing fast, such a typing speed would at least give a person the chance to compose e-mail and other documents, and I was able to bang out a two-paragraph e-mail fairly quickly after I got the hang of the orbiTouch.

For those with carpal tunnel syndrome, however, any speed at which they can "type" is far better than not being able to type at all.

  • The orbiTouch Keyless Keyboard is PC-compatible and can be connected to two PS/2 ports or to a USB port via an included PS/2-to-USB connector. An Apple-compatible version of the orbiTouch is currently in development.

  • The retail price for the orbiTouch is $695, though the company said government, education and nonprofit organizations receive an ongoing 25 percent discount.

  • Dimensions: 19.5 inches x 8.5 inches x 3.75 inches

  • Weight: 4.5 lbs.

    Rating: 3 out of 5
    Shane Peterson Associate Editor