In 2005, whether you were using a dumb phone with T9 Word or a BlackBerry with a physical keyboard, you were probably texting without looking at your phone, at least occasionally. It was just part of the times, like Brick Breaker, or Nelly. Then, in 2007, the iPhone showed up with its bold, buttonless design and erased all of that functionality. Texting suddenly became a two-thumb, eyes-on affair–a Dark Age of text entry we’re still suffering through today. Fleksy wants to change that. And what sets it apart from all the other alternative keyboard apps is that, from the moment you try it, you get the sense that it just might be able to.
Ioannis Verdelis and Kostas Eleftheriou, the two Greek computer scientists behind Fleksy, didn’t just set out to make a better touch-screen keyboard. They set out to make one as good as the keyboards we were using in 2005–or at least one that lets us type as easily and accurately as we were back then. Their software is currently available in beta for Android and as an iOS app, and while it’s still rough in places, that core, no-look functionality is already there to a remarkable extent. I loaded up Fleksy on my iPhone, directed my gaze elsewhere, and thumbed in my best approximation of the word “difficult.” Without having to learn anything new, and without letting the app figure out what kind of thumb-typist I am, and without even pausing at first to make sure my fingers were lined up in any particular way beforehand, Fleksy got it right on the first try.
The founders claim Fleksy can recognize words even if you miss every single letter in them. Or if you’re not even typing on the keyboard section of the screen at all. The reason it’s able to do so, Verdelis explains, is that in addition to using conventional autocorrect cues like context and word frequency, Fleksy was built from scratch to accommodate the sorts of errors we make on our mobile devices. Errors, unsurprisingly, that are totally different from the ones we make on our laptops–and ones that demand a totally different approach to autocorrection.
“Most other [touch-screen] keyboard technologies, including those built-in and most third-party ones, use technology that derives from research done for Microsoft Word and hardware keyboards,” Verdelis says. Essentially, those keyboards look at the buttons, or letters, you tap, and then attempt to suss out your intended words from there. But on a smartphone, that’s a problematic approach for one huge reason: Those touch-screen buttons don’t really exist, and we’re not very good at using them.
On our laptops, the tiny bumps on the “F” and “J” keys keep our fingers oriented. With time, you learn to find them every time you put your index fingers down on the keyboard, and your other digits just fall in place naturally. Touch-screen keyboards don’t offer this type of tactile feedback, so our thumbs can never be sure where they are–at least not without our eyes double checking. As a result, we’re not missing letters every so often on our smartphones; we’re missing them as a matter of course. Occasionally, we drift off and miss entire words at a time.
But still, that doesn’t mean we’re typing poorly. We’re just not typing in quite the right place. “A user will be typing,” Verdelis explains, “and the overall pattern of the word might be the same, but he’s missed all the buttons because his finger has been 10 pixels up … So rather than look at buttons, which don’t exist, we look at where you touched the screen and the pattern of the words you’re trying to type.” That’s Fleksy’s secret sauce. Instead of looking at the on-screen buttons you happen to be tapping, it looks at the patterns between those taps and from them deduces what you meant to type. It erases the very possibility of not typing in the right place.
The solution is a smart one, and it’s clearly effective. But for the last several months, Fleksy has had the added benefit of being in the hands of a large, concerted group of test users: the visually impaired. The developers introduced an early version of the app to the blind community last summer at a conference for the National Federation for the Blind, and they quickly amassed a user base numbering in the thousands that has generated a great deal of insight, feedback, and, of course, raw typing data.
For the rest of us, though, the current iteration of Fleksy will only be so useful. The Android beta is the newer of the two, so it still needs considerable polish, and the iPhone version, shackled by Apple’s unwillingness to let users swap in alternative keyboards on a system-wide level, is constrained to a standalone app. And while the word-to-word accuracy is astonishing right from the start, that iOS version relies on a somewhat complicated series of swipes for spaces and punctuation–upping the learning curve for true adoption considerably.
Verdelis hopes that someday Apple might reverse that policy, but he and Eleftheriou think there’s plenty of room for their technology to flourish regardless. In fact, their real vision is for Fleksy to become not just a replacement available to users but a replacement for suboptimal stock keyboards at large. Verdelis says he and his partner have seen “incredible interest” from hardware manufacturers about building the app into next-gen smartphones, and they’re currently in talks with a handful of potential partners. Hopefully that pans out. We could certainly use a more enlightened way to text.