Virtual keyboard picks up surface vibrations

A Swiss designer says he’s given the iPhone a virtual keyboard on any surface by using its accelerometer to detect vibrations.

Florian Kräutli’s Vibrative Virtual Keyboard detects finger-taps on a table accurately enough to tell which ‘key’ is being pressed, he says.

Kräutli developed the system, which works on a jailbroken iPhone 4, for his master’s degree in cognitive computing at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“Touch screen devices, such as smartphones, lack a suitable method for text input which can compete with mechanical keyboards. The Vibrative Virtual Keyboard aims to appease the frustration felt by smartphone users when faced with drafting lengthy emails or notes on a small onscreen keyboard,” says Kräutli.

“The keyboard requires no additional hardware, as it taps into an iPhone’s built-in accelerometer, which is able to measure the vibrations caused by typing on any hard surface.”

The user first trains the system by ‘typing’ on a piece of paper as if he or she was using a standard full-sized keyboard. Right now, it’s only accurate about 80 percent of the time, but to correct for this the data is run through an auto-correct dictionary.

Once the device has been trained for a prticular user, a touch-typist can do away with the paper altogether, and simply type directly onto a table top.

The system isn’t perfect. It needs a fair bit of training, and the key-presses need to be pretty decisive. But it’s no more wacky than Apple’s own idea of using a phone’s accelerometer to detect when it’s being stolen.

What would really make it great, says Kräutli, would be an improvement in the accuracy of the iPhone’s accelerometer, meaning that the user wouldn’t have to type quite so hard.