Will typists be left twiddling their thumbs?

17/05/2013 | Hayley

Transcription is a major part of Language Insight’s service offerings. The company has a network of qualified typists who can take care of clients’ digital dictation and meet tight deadlines with accuracy, freeing up customers’ time to focus on more pressing issues.

However, Language Insight’s transcriptionists – and all secretaries for that matter – may soon be fundamentally altering the way they type. The reason? It’s all about the keyboard.

For decades, people have used the QWERTY keyboard; based on a layout that was launched in the late 19th century and today is the most popular. Invented by newspaper editor Christopher Latham Sholes, the system was designed to prevent jams occurring on his patented typewriter – the Sholes and Glidden Typewriter. This was achieved by ensuring that letters often written in pairs were not placed next to each other, as rapid typing of these in succession could otherwise cause the keys to jam each other.

Towards the end of the 1980s as computer use and ownership flourished, standardisation was introduced, which means that today most keyboards incorporate the QWERTY layout. Features added to make the keyboard suitable for computers rather than typewriters include esc keys, function keys and a keypad of numbers on the right-hand side.

There are few people today who are not well versed in using QWERTY. Many are trained to type using the system while they are still at school, while others use it for hours every day. However, technology is evolving and now there’s a new contender for QWERTY’s throne.

Introducing KALQ

Over the last few years, there has been an explosion in the popularity of tablet computers and mobile phones that feature a touchscreen. The most common way to type on these is to use both thumbs, which led a group of researchers to question whether QWERTY was the most efficient layout for this writing style.

St Andrews University Max Planck Institute for Informatics and Montana Tech researchers have developed a new keyboard layout, which they claim facilitates faster typing for people using two thumbs to write on a touchscreen. The system was introduced at the CHI 2013 conference on May 1st in Paris.

The name of the system is KALQ, which is a nod towards QWERTY. The older system is named after the six letters to appear on the left of the top row of letters on a standard keyboard, while KALQ is spelt by the bottom row on the right of the new system.

According to the developers, people will be able to type 34 times faster on a touchscreen using KALQ than they can with QWERTY. To come up with the system and ensure it is the most efficient layout possible, the team used a model of a thumb and its movements, and explored different computational optimisation techniques to narrow down a list of millions of potential layouts.

Lecturer in Human Computer Interaction at the university’s School of Computer Science Dr Per Ola Kristensson explained that because QWERTY is so ubiquitous, mobile phone owners now have to use a typing system that is far from optimal for their needs. “We believe KALQ provides a large enough performance improvement to incentivise users to switch and benefit from faster and more comfortable typing,” he added.

In developing the new keyboard, the researchers strove to minimise the use of just one thumb to type out one word, which is more cumbersome than using two, by splitting the letters into two blocks. They also took into account the fact a certain degree of predictive behaviour exists in typing with thumbs, with one tapping a key while the other is already moving to the next letter. To take advantage of this, all vowels were placed in the right block of letters.

An error correction has also been introduced, as is common on mobile phones. This algorithm is built on the statistics and knowledge of thumb movements, and by correcting common errors it allows users to speed up their typing even further. As a result, test subjects were able to achieve a typing speed of 37 words per minute compared to 20 words per minute on a QWERTY keyboard. This is the highest speed ever recorded on a touchscreen device.

However, one question remains: will typists one day be using touchscreen devices to transcribe dictations? What do you think?

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