Student turns table into an iPhone keyboard
November 13th, 2012
02:54 PM ET

Student turns table into an iPhone keyboard

By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) - Here's a new stab at a solution for that old fat-thumbs, small-phone problem: Turn your desk - or table or whatever - into a keyboard.

That's what Florian Kräutli demonstrates in a video called "Vibrative Virtual Keyboard," posted on Vimeo about a month ago. His unreleased virtual-keyboard software, which is making the rounds on design blogs like Fast Company's Co.DESIGN and designboom, lets him place his iPhone on a flat surface and then use the area in front of it to type.

"Touch screen devices, such as smartphones, lack a suitable method for text input which can compete with mechanical keyboards," Krautli is quoted as saying in a press release from Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is studying cognitive computing. "The Vibrative Virtual Keyboard aims to appease the frustration felt by smartphone users when faced with drafting lengthy e-mails or notes on a small onscreen keyboard."

The phone picks up vibrations from his fingers as he taps on invisible keys on the table. Using an app called Sensor Monitor, which appears in the video below, Krauti can pick up and measure those vibrations using the iPhone's accelerometer, a sensor built into the phone. A piece of software he created translates those vibrations - which are slightly different based on their proximity to the phone - into text on the screen. In the video demo, this does not happen seamlessly or quickly, but a spell checker picks up on the mistakes.

The software does require you to train it, according to Fast Company:

The software he coded analyzes this sensor output on a networked Macbook. All the user needs to do is train a new surface - tap a few points and let the software know what letter those taps are supposed to be - and Kräutli’s software will number-crunch the positions for the rest of the keys. A user can then save this surface so the software won’t need a calibration for it again.

Blogger Mark Wilson raves about the virtual keyboard's potential:

Kräutli’s creation is a remarkable statement about the future of user interfaces, where conceivably, every surface becomes a conduit for digital input.

That's the hope. But it may be quite some time before that vision becomes reality. It's also worth noting that several other companies and innovators are working on similar projects that have been getting buzz in the tech world.  The big dog in this space is Microsoft, which demoed its Skinput system in 2010. It works much like Krautli's keyboard, but it turns your arm into the keyboard.

Here's a video of that technology in action:

Another cool concept comes from Jay Silver. His MaKey MaKey project turns bananas into pianos, or beach balls into a computer mouses. Here's a quick video example of that second idea:

Wired explains the technology this way:

The kit exploits the fact that by touching things you complete electric circuits. The MaKey MaKey circuit board connects to your computer via a USB cable. Then attach any object to the board using a crocodile clip. When you touch the object, you complete the circuit, and the circuit board sends a message to your computer, which thinks that MaKey MaKey is a standard keyboard or mouse. You can assign up to 18 mouse and keyboard inputs to any object.

Finally, there are companies that already make virtual keyboards that can be projected onto flat surfaces.

Here's one example:

So the bottom line seems to be this: Who knows what computer keyboards will look like in the future? Popular keyboards of the day - those on smartphone touchscreens or the tactile, older-school versions - may not disappear.

But, from banana pianos to table-tapping apps, there likely will be plenty more options - ideally in the not-too-distant future.

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Filed under: Design • Future • Innovation • Smartphones
soundoff (44 Responses)
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    June 24, 2013 at 3:37 am | Reply

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    January 27, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  3. boradis

    Know what might help it work even better? A keyboard. Instead of a piece of paper with the keyboard printed on it, how about a functional keyboard which sends even clearer vibrations to the accelerometer? No bluetooth, no battery drain, but the user gets the full-size keyboard *and* the tactile feedback of spring-loaded keys.

    January 12, 2013 at 10:54 am | Reply
  4. TechCheck

    Good luck getting that to work anywhere moving or in a crowded space. Even different materials will mess with the reliability. It won't "just work."

    December 2, 2012 at 1:03 am | Reply
  5. wisdomVS

    Oh Geez, I guess it's cool if your typing speed is 10-12 words a minute.

    November 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Reply
  6. mud

    Will it work during an earthquake?

    November 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • Super

      maybe, maybe not. jk of course not. 🙂

      November 16, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  7. Pete

    That dude is smarter than all of you combined and all you do is bash him. What a bunch of miserable low life's on here.

    November 15, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
    • NachoKingP

      We're not bashing him, we're commenting on the usefulness of the idea. The technology is very impressive, but I can't see it being practical at all. That doesn't make us low-lifes, it makes us observant.

      November 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  8. el diablo

    There's a reason that keyboards have buttons that you actually press down instead of making them flat and using light sensors to detect keystrokes. I'm just saying.

    November 14, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  9. NachoKingP

    This is based on vibration in the table? Your fingertips would be numb typing like this after like 20 letters. Not to mention it looks slow as dirt. Obviously this is a proof of concept, and it's cool that he made it work, but still, it seems like it's not going to make any advances in smartphone devices because it's WAY too impractical. Not to mention that there would be different vibration patterns on a wood table than there would be in a glass table or a granite counter top. I'm not trying to be negative, just realistic.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:52 am | Reply
  10. JC

    Wow, that's actually cool, imagine the accelerometers become so sensitive you can draw on your phone or tablet just
    by drawing on a piece of paper in front of it. Crazy.

    Now they just need to figure out a chill pill for these obviously jealous fandroids who can't see past the phone to the amazing piece of programming and innovation this person has shown.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:03 am | Reply
  11. johnquepublique

    "They didn't build that!" -BHO, 2012. No really, they didn't...his buddies in China did!

    November 13, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  12. Chris

    Doesn't this defeat the purpose?

    November 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  13. Rick

    Or, if you need a keyboard, you could just, you know, buy a laptop...

    November 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  14. James Merritt II

    i me mine....another apple product...get it?

    November 13, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  15. james

    If he just learned how to type using all his fingers it would go a lot faster..

    November 13, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • cleareye1

      And why would you want a keyboard on your arm where only one hand can use it? You may as well have it on your ass!

      November 13, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  16. jeff

    This would be incredibly painful after 2 minutes.

    November 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  17. Brian

    "Who knows what computer keyboards will look like in the future?"

    They'll look like museum artifacts because voice recognition will eventually render them obsolete.

    November 13, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • cleareye1

      True. After that the alphabet, graphic letter images, all visual depictions representing words will become useless and unnecessary.

      November 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      They won't become obsolete. As a programmer I doubt that voice recognition will ever become the norm for writing thousands of lines of code.

      November 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Reply
  18. idunno

    There were rumors the iphone 5 would have this built in. duhhhh.

    November 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  19. abuhadiza

    'Think Different" and soon Google will claim it as its own "original" idea barring all Apple products from using it!

    November 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Reply
    • eric

      Enough fanboy!!! You are free to believe whatever you want, but that doesn't make it true. And for the record, Apple didn't invent the MP3 player, Smartphone, Smartphone App, Capacitive Multi-Touch Screen, or Tablet Computer.

      You don't actually believe that cool features like Siri were developed in-house by you? Besides, if it weren't for all the free services that Google made available to world (eg. maps, navigation, search, etc...), the iPhone would have been useless. Did you know that Apple and Google had many of the same board members when the original iPhone was developed and released? Of course you didn't.

      Apple plays the patent game as much as anyone else. The believe otherwise is just sticking your head in the sand. All the big guys buy up technology companies that they think are of use or valuable. Dell bought Palm just for the collection of patents they held for the smartphone market. Businesses operate the way the do, because that's how the rules were written. If you're bitter about the way the world works, then you need to stop your crying and get the patent laws changed. At the very least, try not to whine so much.

      November 13, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
    • JDArkansas

      Apple and Microsoft are the ones suing Android hardware manufacturers left and right over features that Android "copied" from them. Actually, nearly all of these features were in numerous computer systems long before either Apple or Microsoft ever implemented them. Unfortunately, the US Patent Office doesn't seem to understand the concept of "prior art" and rubberstamp any patent applications submitted by Apple or Microsoft even when those companies did not invent the feature.

      November 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
    • Quantum Fracture

      Star Trek did it first. Screw any thought that Apple or friends are innovators. They just copy designs.

      Flip Phones, tablets, smart phones, ear pieces and blue tooth devices are ll featured prominently in various Star Trek Series that quit airing long ago.

      I am waiting for the comm badge to come along.

      November 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  20. Jill

    So if I hit the keys 0.001% harder (or softer) than last time... it magically "knows" this?

    November 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • DoggSho

      @Jill, of course not. Magic has nothing to do with technology even technology can have everything to do with magic. I know it may sound contradictory or confusing; it's no magic that's involved but only the laws of physics my dear. 🙂

      November 14, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  21. chilli7up

    This is a poor interface: error prone, latency delay, and heavy processor consumption.

    Microsoft already has the correct idea on their surface. Gesture-base type response is a much better solution.

    This won't carry into market.

    November 13, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • eric

      If you can dream it, you can do it....but that down't mean it isn't incredibly stupid.

      November 13, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  22. GregB

    I hope I'm not the first person to think of this but... where's the space bar?

    November 13, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      On the other side of the desk, under a pile of papers.

      November 13, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  23. Brian in TX

    that's so funny I forgot to laugh

    November 13, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  24. Been demonstrated before

    Interesting as this is, it isn't anything novel. It has been shown that any phone with an accelerometer in it can when placed on the same desk as an actual keyboard be used to determine what you are typing on the keyboard to discern passwords and such. The researchers were coming at it from the perspective of it being a security risk. This is just an application of that research into a potential monetary gain which while laudible and great that research is being turned into a potential product. It isn't limited to apple OS as malware that does this to varying degrees of success has been floating around certain circles for a decent amount of time.

    November 13, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  25. smartaz

    Great, now Apple will try to put a patent on the table.

    November 13, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • doc

      good idea! itable..

      November 13, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
      • Tomtomtom

        Has anyone seen that episode of Weeds on Showtime?

        November 14, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • ThermalJockey

      Yea, and then someone can print the layout on a napkin. Then, since it is so slow, I can take an iNap!

      November 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
      • Aaron

        When you take an iNap on an iTable it changes your status to iDontCare

        November 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm |

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