A couple of weeks ago someone on Twitter pointed me to this Kickstarter project for a Multi-Touch Keyboard and Mouse. “Cool, no?” I was asked. Yes, it really looks cool, elegant, futuristic. Very interesting material to show and I’m sure a lot of thought went into designing it and making the underlying technology work as intended. However, this multi-touch keyboard and mouse fail to convince me on a practical level, especially the keyboard. I know that the best criticism comes from actually trying the product, but from what I’ve seen in the pictures and video on the Kickstarter page, I think I can make a few safe assumptions about it. Here’s a brief list of observations.
The feedback problem — With this keyboard, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of feedback, either tactile or visual. I wonder how you can type quickly and confidently without looking at it. Even the best typist needs some tactile reference to ‘feel’ the keyboard under their fingers, to assess the keys’ size and spacing. (In the FAQ, the project author mentions that There are small bumps on the F and J keys and you can touch them without activating the keys. There is also sound that can be turned on or off to help with the tactile function of the device, but I still think it’s not enough) One could object that the virtual keyboards on devices such as the iPhone or iPad potentially share the same problem, but: a) they offer visual and auditory feedback, and b) since they appear right under what you’re typing, you’re actually always looking at them while you type; or, to put it another way, both the keyboard and the cursor position are in your field of view. These factors combined mean you can type effectively on an iPad keyboard. With this multi-touch keyboard you have to stare at it most of the time, and let’s even assume it’s okay to do so, the fact that the keys are drawn on a transparent surface doesn’t help. From what I can observe by looking at the photos, in certain lighting conditions it may be difficult to aim at keys while you type. Things could improve if the keyboard’s surface were matte, but that would be a problem for the underlying infrared technology. To imagine the feedback of this keyboard, try ‘typing’ your desk while you look at the monitor before you. It doesn’t seem much effective, right?
Lack of adjustability — I still think a good keyboard should be adjustable, especially a feedback-less keyboard like this. For the record, I also dislike the last generations of ‘flat’ keyboards from Apple for the same reason. Earlier keyboards were either adjustable or they offered a curved profile for the rows of keys that facilitated typing and provided a more ergonomic solution. Just look at the difference comparing the side view of the older Apple Wireless Keyboard and the current model:
Tiring in the long run? — This is just a guess, I admit, but as someone who types for many many hours a day, I’m really wondering if the lack of physical keys and response would mean my fingers getting tired sooner than with a regular keyboard. I don’t know, I try to imagine how tapping for hours on a piece of plexiglas would be, and it sounds quite tiring.
The mouse: is it a mouse, a trackpad, both, neither? — That mouse is strange. Great looking, but strange nonetheless. It is obviously not made for being moved around like a regular mouse, so I assume it needs to be used as a trackpad, much like Apple’s Magic Trackpad. Apart from the absence of feedback (Apple’s Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad, both multi-touch devices, offer a very perceptible hardware ‘click’), the biggest problem is that it’s a trackpad with the size of a mouse, and this is not good if you plan to perform a series of multi-touch gestures on it. The Magic Trackpad might not be for everyone, and might be a little tricky to be used alone, replacing a mouse, but at least it has a large enough surface allowing sophisticated interaction. This prototype multi-touch mouse, from a functional standpoint, looks to me like an immovable Magic Mouse — not very practical if you ask me.
This Kickstarter project is already well beyond its funding goal (at the moment it has collected $127,791, the goal was $50,000) and I greatly respect the design work that went into it. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious in my criticism and I’m not being fair, but what I outlined above are the reasons why I wouldn’t consider purchasing a product like this. Cool and elegant, no doubt. But not for me.