KALQ thumb-type keyboard to replace QWERTY?

Designed to speed up typing on tablets, a new form of keyboard has been created, named KALQ, which, like the standard QWERTY, is so called after the placement of the keys.

The creators of the KALQ layout are based at the University of St Andrews, the Max Planck Institute for Informatics and Montana Tech, and reckon that you’ll need about eight hours of practice to be as fast as your normal Qwerty typing speeds, and that within 13-19 hours you’ll actually overtake your typing speed.

KALQ keyboard

KALQ keyboard

Dr Per Ola Kristensson, who is a Lecturer in Human Computer Interaction in the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews, and is one of the academics involved in the research, says that typing performances can reach about a third (34 percent) more efficient than if you were to thumb typing on a standard split-screen Qwerty layout.

The KALQ layout can be adjusted for any language, but for English speakers there is a split-screen which shows the alphabet as two unequal blocks of letters; you have consonants on the left block (plus Y which can be classed as either) and vowels plus the remaining consonants, including K, L and Q (hence KALQ), in the right. There is a space key which is situated at the edge of each block that you can reach easily with either thumb.

KALQ keyboard

KALQ keyboard

The researchers say that they have positioned the letters so that typing speeds with one thumb are enhanced. They have placed the letters that are frequently used close to each other, in order to minimise thumb movements, and the general layout encourages typing on alternative sides of the keyboard, which is supposedly a more ergonomic and comfortable way to type.

There are plans to release the KALQ keyboard as a free Android app for tablets and phablets, but the researchers say that it will also work on smaller screen smartphones, however it is best suited to larger devices.

Typists will have to not only get used to the new letter layout, but learn to utilise their thumbs at the same time, to get faster typing skills. Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute, Dr Antti Oulasvirta said: “Experienced typists move their thumbs simultaneously: while one thumb is selecting a particular key, the other thumb is approaching its next target. From these insights we derived a predictive behavioural model we could use to optimise the keyboard.”

And Kristensson doesn’t think many people will need persuading to adopt to the new keyboard layout, as he said that with most of the challengers to the old QWERTY layout is that users had to go through the painful experience of having to relearn typing all over again. With the KALQ system the turnover time is relatively fast.

He said: “If you want to get people to change their layout you basically have to get people to invest, you have to get them to give up the assigned cost, their previous investment in Qwerty typing. And then we have to invest new time in learning KALQ. There’s been lots of crazy text input technologies proposed. Actually hundreds of them. Most of them have failed. I would say probably 99% of them have filed but the problem with a lot of them is actually they are not fast enough so why would people reinvest in learning a new text entry method if it doesn’t provide a substantial performance advantage so I think [KALQ] is one of the few keyboards that can provide that. So I’m hopeful.”

And although the new KALQ system will be released as a free app, the makers are hoping that some monetary gain may be possible: “What I’m hoping here is that we will have impact,” Kristensson told TechCrunch. “I wanted to get people away from thinking about the Qwerty keyboard. And I think impact here may mean that we will release [KALQ] for free — but remember we are the ones who have all the algorithms to come up with optimal keyboards so we learn a lot about how to optimise user interfaces in general. My co-investigator, Antti Oulasvirta, he’s completely passionate about optimising any sort of user interface. So the process we use here can also be used to optimise other user interfaces like menu structures for example so there is lots of potential for the underlying technology. This is just one instantiation of that. But I think trying to sell a new keyboard — that’s a risky proposition. I’m not sure a venture capitalist would go for it.”

The developers will present their work at the CHI 2013 conference (the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems) in Paris on 1 May.

The response so far from the public has not been particularly favourable, as the following comments show:

‘After using QWERTY for many years, and converting to Mac, finding the keyboard is just different enough to really screw up productivity (plus having XL ‘man thumbs’ anyway), not sure I’d want to adapt again.’

‘I have never seen a single person typing on a smartphone’s screen in that manner ever! No one I know has used their thumbs to type since old school phones with number pads!’

‘For it to take off, every new device from every manufacturer would need to have it installed. Failing that, we’d all have to learn two typing systems. Isn’t life complicated enough already?’

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