The Shape of Things to Come

This is from my weekly newspaper column, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We’re all touch typists now.

Of course, the definition of touch type has had to change a little, since most of us don’t actually learn touch typing as we’re supposed to. Watch people tapping away at a keyboard and you’ll see all sorts of cobbled-together methods that would make the office secretary of yesteryear blanch.

But for now keyboards are going to be with us for a while as the main way to get our thoughts into a computer, so some sort of touch typing is necessary.

But the mobile phone is different. After ten years most of us have gotten used to entering text using the predictive, or T9, method, where the phone figures out you’re trying to say “hello” rather than “gekko” when you tap the 4,3,5,5,6 keys.

Texting has gotten faster—Portugal’s Pedro Matias, 27, set a new world record in January by typing a 264-character text in less than 2 minutes, shaving 23 seconds off the previous record—but that’s still slower than your average touch typist, who manages 120 words-say 480 characters—in the same amount of time.

Blackberry uses have their QWERTY keyboards, each key the size of a pixie’s fingernail, and while some people seem to be quite happy with these things, I’m not.

And the iPhone has given us, or given back to us, the idea of little virtual keyboards on our screen. I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of these either.

The arrival of the Android phone hasn’t really helped matters: The keyboard is usually virtual (some of the earlier phones had physical keyboards, but most have dropped them in favor of onscreen ones) and I really didn’t enjoy typing on them.

To the point that my wife complained that she could tell when I was using the Android phone over my trusty old Nokia because she didn’t feel I was “so reachable.” By which she means my monosyllabic answers weren’t as reassuring as my long rambling Nokia, predictive text ones.

But that has changed with the arrival of software called ShapeWriter. ShapeWriter is software that provides the same virtual keyboard, but lets you swipe your words on it by dragging your fingers over the keys to, well, form a shape.

Typing “hello,” for example, is done by starting your finger on “h”, dragging it northwest to “e”, then to the far east of “l”, lingering there a second, then north a notch to “o.” No lifting of the finger off the keyboard. Your finger instead leaves a red slug-like trail on the keyboard, and, in theory, when you lift your finger off the keys that trail will be converted to the word “Hello.”

And, surprise, surprise, it actually works. Well, unless you’re demonstrating it to a skeptical spouse, in which case instead of “hello” it types “gremio” or “hemp.”

Now this isn’t the first time I’ve used ShapeWriter. It has been around a while—it was first developed by IBM Labs in the early 2000s. It’s gone through quite a few changes in the meantime, not least in the theory behind it.

But the main bit of thinking is the same as that with predictive text (and speech recognition): what is called the redundancy of language. Taking, for example, the whole body of emails written by Enron employees, the most frequent email sender wrote nearly 9,000 emails in two years, totalling about 400,000 words.

That’s a lot of words. But in fact the number of actual words was about 2.5% of that: That email sender only used 10,858 unique words.

Now of course, Enron employees might not be representative of the wider population, but researchers have to work with data, and the Enron case threw up lots of data. The Enron Email Dataset is a 400 megabyte file of about 500,000 emails from about 150 users, mostly senior management of Enron. Making it a goldmine for researchers of language, machine learning and the like.

Learning from the words used—though presumably not their morals—researchers are able to figure out what words we use and what we don’t. Thus, ShapeWriter, and T9, and speech recognition, are able to tune out all the white noise by only having to worry about a small subset of words a user is typing, or saying. Most words we either don’t use because our vocabularies aren’t that great, or because we haven’t invented those words yet.

ShapeWriter has 50,000 words in its lexicon, but it gives preference to those 10,000 or so words it considers most common (presumably

In ShapeWriter’s case, they produce a template of the shape of each word they decide to store in the software, so the shape you’re drawing—left-far right, up, down, along—is recognised.

In its latest incarnation it actually works surprisingly well, and I’d recommend anyone with an Android phone to check it out. (It’s free.) There’s a version for the iPhone too, as well as Windows Mobile and the Windows Tablet PC. Only downside: For now, at least, only five–European–languages are supported.

I am not convinced this kind of thing is going to replace the real keyboard, but it’s the first decent application I’ve come across that has gotten me back into actually enjoying tapping out messages on my device.

My wife, for one, is happy.

14. June 2010 by jeremy
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One Comment

  1. Already been done, got swype input on my HD2…