Smartwatches are still trying to answer a lot of questions, chief among them being, “What do people actually what to do with them?” Their small size means many platforms will need to be reimagined to fit their screens, and Microsoft Research is trying to tackle the most important one — texting.
Microsoft Research’s “analogue keyboard project,” wants to rethink the way we communicate with smartwatches. Typing on a smartwatch has already been done by software outfits like Minuum, but the impossibly tiny keys make it all pretty frustrating. Currently, voice-powered texting remains the prevailing method of wearable communication, but even that can fail. Maybe there are moments when you don’t want to talk to your watch, not to mention the hit-or-miss voice recognition, and very few people actually text the way they talk, so even voice is far from a perfect solution.
Instead, Microsoft’s analogue keyboard works by users writing letters, numbers, and emojis one at a time. The team makes a pretty good case why such a keyboard would be preferable to our current alternative:
Handwriting, unlike speech, is discreet and not prone to background noise. And unlike soft keyboards, where many keys have to share the small touch surface, handwriting methods can offer the entire screen (or most of it) for each symbol. This allows each letter to be entered rather comfortably, even on small devices. In fact, it has been shown that some handwriting systems can be used without even looking at the screen. Finally, handwriting interfaces require very little design changes to run on round displays, which are becoming increasingly popular.
However, the team is as forthcoming about the platform’s advantages as it is about its current setbacks. For one, the keyboard doesn’t work on lower resolution screens (280×280), the 360 version is a little buggy, the app only supports lower case letters (for now), and the keyboard can be a bit of a battery hog since all the computation is done directly on the device. Oh, and you also can’t curse. But then again, this isn’t so much a finished product but a working prototype, so buggy and rough code is to be expected.
The research team is making their keyboard software publicly available though it will need to be sideloaded onto your smartwatch. The team says all they want is some real-world feedback to help get a sense of whether this could be a possible future for smartwatch texting or just a passing fascination. [Microsoft Research via The Verge]