The standard QWERTY-style keyboard was clearly designed for use with ten fingers on two hands. It’s hard to cram all of those keys on a tiny smartphone display and get a keyboard that’s still as easy to use. I can type about 100 words per minute on a full sized keyboard, but I struggle to get out about 20 words per minute on my Nexus One or iPod touch. 8pen is a company that thinks it has a solution — albeit a rather odd looking one.
The idea is that instead of replicating the QWERTY keyboard on a small screen device, you should start from scratch with a new text input method meant to be used with a single finger. The 8pen approach lets you swipe your finger in a series of gestures to enter characters. The shortest gestures correspond with the most frequently used letters, while it takes a few more strokes to trigger Q, Z, and other less frequently used letters.
The company says the end result feels a lot like handwriting — but that kind of raises a simple question: why not just build a handwriting recognition system? Palm Graffiti and Windows Mobile handwriting recognition worked pretty well for the better part of a decade and let users input text without having to learn a dramatically different way to draw characters. 8pen looks like it could work, since you can input text without ever lifting your finger from the screen, but it also requires memorizing a new set of gestures.
That’s just one of the potential problems I see with the solution. Another is that 8pen appears to be designed for use with an index finger, which requires you to hold the phone in one hand while writing with another. Most on-screen keyboards let you type with a thumb, holding the phone in one hand.
There are at least two other benefits of on-screen (or hardware) keyboards on phones. First, you can use two thumbs to input characters instead of one finger, which speeds things up. Second, if you’ve spent time using a full sized keyboard, the learning curve is very low. You pretty much already know where all the characters should be. The first time I used iPhone and Android keyboards, I already knew how to use them.
That said, 8pen and other alternate text input methods could work for some users who have difficulty with on-screen keyboards. And to be fair, I haven’t actually tried the keyboard yet. It should be available for download for Google Android devices soon.
You can check out a demo video of the 8pen system in action after the break.