I’ve written in the past about the cute personal organizer (nanocomputer?) from Infogrip called the miniBAT. I’ve used one since early August when Ward Bond, Infogrip’s president, sent me one to try. After a fair amount of use, I’ve come to several conclusions. First, the miniBAT works well as a small note-taking machine, and its other features add a bit to its overall utility. Second, and more importantly, I think chord keyboards stand a chance in the fight against carpal tunnel syndrome-causing QWERTY keyboards, although the fight will be an uphill one even now that Infogrip has come out with the BAT, a pair of seven key chord keyboards that supplement or replace your standard keyboard. The BAT comes in models for the Macintosh and PC clones, and several other options are on the way. For those of you who haven’t heard of a chord keyboard until now, it works in the same way a piano does; you simply hit two or more keys together to create a unique keystroke. For instance, the single index finger might be the letter "e" and the index finger and the middle finger together might be the letter "a." Believe me, it works, and surprisingly well.
The miniBAT measures about 3.5" x 7" x .75" and weighs approximately eleven ounces – and that’s with a full 37K of data in it. 🙂 It comes with a sturdy plastic slipcase and fits into roomy pockets. The current incarnation of the miniBAT sports a tiny twenty character by four line LCD display that isn’t lit in any way. Its has a terribly laid-out alphabetical keyboard (laid out in alphabetical order), number keys, and 19 function/ navigation keys. Both the screen and the keys would seem to be major drawbacks to using the miniBAT, but they’re not. I’ll explain in a bit. The rest of the surface of the miniBAT is taken up by seven large keys placed to correspond with the natural positions of the fingers on the right hand (lefties can learn to use their right hands pretty easily I suspect, since the motions aren’t significantly different from normal typing, which uses both hands). The right side of the miniBAT contains the rest of the items the user will care about, the ON/OFF switch, the power plug for charging, an indicator light that goes on when the miniBAT is plugged in, and a small serial port covered by a sliding panel. The miniBAT supposedly lasts about 40 hours on a charge, but I’ve never tried to run it down all the way.
I’m not really up on the personal organizer market since I’m not particularly impressed by what they can do for me. However, nanocomputers intrigue me, and I like to check out computers like the HP 95LX and the Poqet PC from the hit movie, "Honey I Shrunk The Keyboard." Those two have far better screens than the miniBAT, and their keyboards are at least laid out in the QWERTY layout, so you have a chance of being able to type on them, but when it comes right down to it, they’re too small. It doesn’t make sense to make a nanocomputer by merely shrinking the design of a desktop computer; they are different beasts and serve different purposes so they should be designed differently.
Later this week Infogrip will introduce the first in a line of InfoWear, computers that you actually wear. The Hip PC is a small PC clone that lives in a fanny pack worn around the waist. A miniBAT serves as a keyboard, and Reflection Technologies’s Private Eye virtual display works as a monitor. I’m pleased to hear about InfoWear, and in fact as soon as I heard the name from Ward, I asked him to spell the last four letters for me, just to be sure. I have pushed for wearable computer equipment for some time now since makes so much more sense than an itty-bitty desktop-style palmtop. See TidBITS-023/01-Oct-90 for the article I wrote way back when on Portable Computer Clothing.
So anyway, yes, the miniBAT has a bad screen and yes, the miniBAT has a terrible alphabetic keyboard. But the chord keyboard makes up for it with a vengeance. As I’ve said, I use the miniBAT mainly for taking notes in meetings, although I’m considering starting to use it for taking notes while I talk on the phone since I hate trying to type on my keyboard with one hand. I even used the miniBAT to write a short letter to my mother while creeping along in a Seattle traffic jam. Ward told me that one miniBAT user is writing a novel while commuting to work; I’m too chicken to try that.
The beauty of the chord keyboard is that within an hour or so you can learn to touch type. If you can touch type, you don’t have to use the alphabetic keyboard at all (or most of the function keys), and you no longer have to look at the screen. If you don’t have to look at the screen, you can do lots of other things like pay attention in a meeting or interview, watch a presentation in a darkened room, drive your car (apparently), or who knows what else. As you grow more proficient with the chord keyboard, your speed will improve and you won’t have to concentrate as much on remembering the chords. This is not to imply that the miniBAT’s chord keyboard is ideal, because if it was, I would have retired my extended Mac keyboard by now and my wrists would thank me. Being so small, the miniBAT’s chord keys don’t have positive tactile feedback, which makes them worse than mushy. I find it difficult to tell when I’ve actually pressed a chord at times, although I’m improving now that I have figured out to create the pattern in mid-air, and then "thwack" the proper keys. I’m waiting on the full BAT keyboards before I put the effort into transferring all my typing to a chord keyboard, and I’ll be sure to write about them once I’ve tried them.
The miniBAT accepts memory and program cards that expand its power, and can even take a fax modem or alphanumeric pager. However, it’s too pricey at $595 for what it does right now, considering the price of the personal organizers and the DOS palmtops. The success of miniBAT will not come from sales, but from the experience that Infogrip has gained from it that will benefit future products. Given Infogrip’s fast pace and innovative ideas, I’m sure that they will have even more original products out soon.
If you are going to Macworld San Francisco, you may be able to ask them yourself, since Infogrip will be there showing off the BAT for the Mac as well as other cool stuff for ergonomic computing. Check them out at Booth 5323 in Brooks Hall.
812 North Boulevard
Baton Rouge, LA 70802
Reflection Technology — 617/890-5905
Ward Bond, Infogrip president