Technology: It's virtually goodbye to computer keyboards . . .
By NORBERT LOSSAU Marrying virtual reality to typing has produced an offspring that may become typists’ ultimate thrill: the virtual keyboard. All it takes is a flat surface, a template and a video camera that ‘watches’ the fingers. The computer monitors finger movement, decides which ‘key’ has been touched, and displays it on the screen. The virtual keyboard could be one solution to a problem that has recently stumped designers of portable computers. While the machines themselves are getting smaller and lighter, the human hand, of course, remains the same size – placing a lower limit on the keyboard size, and hence the weight of the machine. Small handheld computers have smaller keys, but most people have to poke at them with just a couple of fingers, making typing at speed uncomfortable and inaccurate. The virtual keyboard would make it possible to take a computer practically anywhere. It could also reduce maintenance, since dust buildup in the electrical contacts of keys tends to make them unresponsive. Mechanical parts are also prone to breakage. A computer with a virtual keyboard could almost be a sealed unit, except for sockets and disk drives. The idea emerged from IBM’s production centre in Sindelfingen, Germany, which envisages applications in places such as operating theatres – where standard keyboards, which are almost impossible to sterilise, are unwelcome – and in public places where vandalism is a risk, such as information points and vending and cash machines. The video camera sends 25 pictures a second to the system to follow finger movements, which are interpreted by a program requiring only 7 kilobytes. People who do not touch-type could use the virtual keyboard with the help of a paper template, spread out on a convenient surface to guide their fingers. By changing the position of the camera, it might also be possible to enlarge the virtual keys. Presently, though, the product is about two years away from commercial production,