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  • 08.10.10

Reverting To Type: Microsoft Gets The Tablet Keyboard All Backwards

What’s the iPad’s greatest weakness? Its keyboard. Now Microsoft says it has a better idea for tablet computers: put the keys on the back.

If you’ve ever tried to type with an iPad’s onscreen keyboard for more than just the occasional email, you know how difficult it can be. The keys are scrunched too close together for most hands, while the touchscreen means your fingers can’t ever rest on the keyboard. Now Microsoft thinks it may have found a way to go one better than the iPad and turn the tablet game upside-down — literally.

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Researchers at Microsoft’s labs in Cambridge, England have developed a tablet with a full touchscreen and room for a physical keyboard, reports ZDNet. How? They’ve placed it on the back of the device. Called RearType, the keys are reached by the four fingers wrapped around the tablet, while the thumbs grip the front. It’s kind of like an accordion.

You know the Z-button hidden behind videogame controllers since the Nintendo 64? Microsoft has just mimicked that concept–and added letters A to Z for those able to type blindly and backward. On the front of the device is the Space, Backspace, Enter, Tab, Shift, Control and Alt keys, which are easily accessible by each thumb. Eat your heart out, Apple.

From the report on the white paper on RearType:

The RearType key layout takes the two halves of the QWERTY alphabet keys and rotates them so that the keys remain in the same relative positions with respect to the fingers despite them being on the rear surface of a device. This is equivalent to 90-degree rotations in two axes. The thumbs remain on the frontsurface for grip, and other keys are placed within reach of the thumbs.

RearType avoids the need for on-screen touch-based keyboards and their inherent space usage and occlusion problems. It also supports 10-finger touch-typing input versus the single-finger “hunt and peck” of touchscreen or thumb-based small-key keyboards (e.g. on Blackberrys).

While it feels like an April Fools’ joke, you have to applaud the originality. Microsoft’s report shows that out of dozens of testers, speeds were slower on a RearType than a touchscreen. Many more, however, thought the repositioned keyboard felt more comfortable.

The researchers also pointed out that there is a big learning curve for such a novel typing method. With more practice, we may be more than capable of typing in this manner. One participant, for example, was able to type 47 words per minute using RearType. Can you type that fast on a regular keyboard?

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.

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