Some people complain about the direction of touch panels. Complaints about losing a physical keyboard are some of the biggest. Certainly typing anything larger than a page can begin to feel numb on a touch device.
Microsoft, never afraid to innovate (well, sometimes), has come up with the RearType research project. What it is exactly is a rear keyboard that users will blindly strike to cross the T’s and dot the I’s. While Microsoft isn’t the first to place input behind the screen, it is first to have a keyboard. Microsoft’s researchers do recognize that the idea is a little nuts, but can show that the speed of typing is similar to that of a touch screen device like the iPad.
After extensive discussion and pilot explorations, we felt that the crucial question to ask at this stage is whether the basic idea of putting keys on the back of the device is even reasonable. After all, at first glance, this might well appear to be a crazy idea with little practical appeal. We therefore conducted a user study to determine if, upon initial exposure to the device, users find such a novel keyboard at all usable or simply frustrating. To obtain some comparative empirical data, we also contrasted the use of RearType with a touchscreen soft keyboard and a regular physical keyboard. Initial results are very promising; we show that after only an hour with the device, participants could type 15 WPM using RearType and that their performance was not statistically different to text entry using the touchscreen keyboard.