The iPad has a perfectly good software keyboard but it’s … not perfect. It’s fine in small doses, for quick e-mails, tweets, short notes. For the hunt-and-peck crowd, even one-handed with a Padlette, it’s a commuter’s dream. But one of the original criticisms of the iPad — that it wouldn’t rival standard computers as a content-creation tool — still bears out. The iPad’s virtual keyboard isn’t a hardcore tool, and external keyboards defeat the purpose or are often impractical and are … not perfect.
Now, two Seattle-based inventors have come up with an iPad keyboard they call TouchFire that could dramatically alter the tablet keyboard landscape.
TouchFire is an extremely thin, flexible and resilient silicon overlay that provides real “keys” while adding no weight or girth. By addressing the fundamental shortcomings of a virtual keyboard it aims to make the iPad a friendlier typing experience which, co-inventor Steve Isaac said in a meeting with Wired.com Thursday, makes the widely adopted consumption device much more approachable for creating content.
The problem is that there is absolutely no feedback from a virtual keyboard. You must look at it to use it. Your eyes nervously dart from the keyboard to the rest of the screen to check on your work and catch those unfortunate auto-correct suggestions. This is actually unsettling in a way we may not even be conscious of. It’s so uncomfortable that this usability defect would likely have sunk the prospects of the first typewriter.
I met briefly on Thursday with Isaac, who brought along a prototype TouchFire which I did not even notice under the smartcover of his iPad 2. Isaac’s cover was tricked out with magnets; the production model will hold onto the cover with clips.
Even with the first few words I tapped out the difference in the relationship between human and tablet was immediately apparent: This was much closer to the keyboard experience I had learned and that I expect to disappear as I create. But this isn’t just a crutch for fogies who can’t get with the virtual keyboard program. Mastering a keyboard isn’t one of those things that a new generation can pick up in a new way, unburdened by old hangups and biases. Learning to touch type is like a golf swing, or running: there is one perfect way, and orientation and feedback are essential for serious use.
I didn’t have enough time for even a comprehensive hands-on evaluation but the concept and little problems solved by TouchFire seem sound: The keys give properly, strike properly even if not hit exactly right, accept sliding (to reveal alternate characters), and allow your fingers to actually rest and re-orient.
If you can touch type, you can touch type.
Also, batteries not required.
TouchFire isn’t on the market yet. It’s a Kickstarter project which has received pledges amounting to nearly 10 times the $10,000 in backing it sought. This means it will be funded on Dec. 13, and Isaac told Wired.com he hopes to ship as early as January. Pledge $45 and you’ve pre-ordered.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a better keyboard is a missing piece of the phenomenally successful Apple tablet. But Isaac would.
“We do think that this completes the iPad,” he said.