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Holy BatKeyboards!

We’ve run a couple of articles in the past about various neat new methods of interfacing with the computer (in this case a legitimate use of the pseudo-verb "to interface" – unlike the usage "Wanna go interface with me?"). Most of the new controllers are coming out for the PC-clones first, possibly because they’re easier to program for but more likely because it’s a larger market. The newest controller is a chord keyboard called the Bat. It’s designed so that you can use two of them (Bat wings) on either side of your normal keyboard to provide additional macro keys without disabling your current keyboard. However, each Bat wing can function as a complete 101-key keyboard through its chording system. For those who haven’t heard of chord keyboards, you essentially form letters through key combinations, like chords on a piano. They’re generally accepted as a good way of inputting information, but have never made it in the popular marketplace.

Infogrip Systems has been working on the Bat for four years now and will introduce it at Comdex in Las Vegas in a few weeks. If you are at Comdex, be sure to check it out at booth C0322. I wish we could make it to Comdex but it isn’t feasible now. Maybe next year.

In any event, the person who came up with the initial design was the head of human factors for the Israeli Air Force. Pilots have to use a lot of controls and he managed, using chording, to reduce the time it took to perform a certain sequence from 32 second to 12 seconds. In a fighter jet you could be outside of Israel in 20 seconds, which is why his work was so important. Using this research Infogrip figured out the most efficient chord combinations for the various letters and implemented it in a seven key keyboard, four keys for the fingers and three keys for the thumb. Be glad it’s one of the opposable variety.

Infogrip’s research shows that it takes about 45 minutes to learn the key combinations and about 45 hours to achieve a 45 words per minute typing speed. They haven’t tested it on people who type professionally at over 80 words per minute, but they expect those people to go as fast or faster on the chord keyboard. It certainly isn’t going to be the easiest thing in the world to switch to, but it sounds like it would be well worth the work.

The Bat’s design should lessen the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is incapacitating more and more office workers all the time. The Bat is tilted at a 25 degree angle, which is apparently a natural one for the hand, and includes a rest for the heel of the hand to sit on while typing. In addition, because your fingers all rest on the keys at all times, there isn’t any lateral motion, (lateral motion increases nerve irritation). Even more useful may be an "Intelligent Chair" that Infogrip is designing with a major office furniture maker. This chair would be the usual ergonomic chair, but with a Bat wing at the end of each armrest. I brought up the problem of the mouse, and the Infogrip rep said that a pad for a mouse would also be designed into the chair and that you could easily type with one hand and use the mouse with the other since each Bat wing is a complete keyboard. Since the keyboards are attached to the chair, they can sit at the best height and angle for whoever is using the chair, thus cutting down on the repetitive strain injuries that can result from excessive computer use. My order is in for one of those chairs.

Infogrip is excited about the Bat, justifiably, and they even have a prototype of a keyboard that can provide tactile feedback to the user as well. It works by lowering the keys, which you can feel because your fingers are already on all the keys. They and NASA have worked with a blind person and were able to teach him to touch type in 45 minutes and in another hour he could understand words coming back through the keyboard from the computer, one letter at a time. "One letter at a time." you say, "That’s ridiculous!" Well, yes, but Infogrip is working with the Navy on an experiment to attach words to key combinations so conversing through one’s fingertips could be a little more fluid. After words, the next step would be to somehow attach a concept to a key combination, thus allowing large amounts of specific information to pass through the keyboard. If you can think of interesting ways to use this keyboard feedback, give Infogrip a call and let them know.

The Infogrip rep said that they had a programmer working on the device driver so a Mac could use the Bat. He didn’t know when it would be introduced, but he was optimistic about a quick release date. If a Mac Bat sounds interesting to you, give Infogrip a call: they’re interesting people to talk to and perhaps enough calls will hasten the introduction of the Bat for the Mac. Asking about the Intelligent Chair wouldn’t hurt either, particularly if you’re worried about repetitive strain injuries. And as usual, if you call Infogrip, please mention that you heard about them in TidBITS.

Infogrip — 504/336-0033

Information from:
Adam C. Engst — TidBITS Editor
Infogrip representative

Related articles:
InfoWorld — 29-Oct-90, Vol. 12, #44, pg. 27

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