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Engelbart's Violin
May 23, 2012 8:56 PM   Subscribe

A detailed history, explanation, and defense of the chorded keyboard.
posted by gilrain (26 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember years ago reading about a chorded keyboard which was sort of egg shaped and held in the hand so you were basically squeezing different fingers into a fist in order to type. I thought at the time it would be a great way to learn to type. Combine that with wireless technology, and you could wander around the room at will, making nervous hand fidget motions and type nonstop for hours.

Or I figured I could, anyway.

I never did buy one. I'm sadly far too muscle-memory trained for touch-typing (three semesters of touch typing in Junior High will do that [two of them on manual typewriters! one on electric! Gods I'm old!!!]).
posted by hippybear at 9:02 PM on May 23, 2012


I think Vi (and maybe emacs, never used it) counts as a near-equivalent to Englebart's chorded keyboard. Watching real Vi virtuosi do their thing is a sight to behold, and it's build on secret and arcane knowledge. It also seems to separate the members of the Brotherhood from the know-nothings.
posted by argybarg at 9:17 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've always thought these would be fun and powerful. Right now I'm using a Kinesis Advantage which is probably the best thing you can get as far as typewriter keyboards go.
posted by spitefulcrow at 9:18 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think Vi (and maybe emacs, never used it) counts as a near-equivalent to Englebart's chorded keyboard. Watching real Vi virtuosi do their thing is a sight to behold, and it's build on secret and arcane knowledge. It also seems to separate the members of the Brotherhood from the know-nothings.

I recently switched to vim from emacs and I feel so much more productive with vim. I guess I never learned enough of the secret ways of emacs.
posted by spitefulcrow at 9:19 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Decades ago in a science supply catalog I remember seeing this company that sold a data collection device that used a chorded keyboard. It was set up in a way that you could hold it in one hand while you walked around. When you held it in your hand, your fingers were pressed against keys, so you could type with that hand while you were doing something with the other hand, even if you were walking around, away from a desk. I was blown away by the concept and am sad that it never went anywhere

(unless it still exists).
posted by eye of newt at 9:29 PM on May 23, 2012


Glad to see Karl van Hœt get an FPP on metafilter.
posted by modernserf at 9:33 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I periodically get intrigued by these sorts of alternative inputs. Particularly appealing to me is the combination of a chording keyboard in the left hand and a graphics tablet pen in the right, but the keyboards are too expensive and I don't have time to relearn to type.

Plus I think that typing on my iPad is better anyway, hear me out, yes you lack keys, but you also don't have to press keys, so it can be much lower impact if you just gently tap. A CS major buddy of mine had the original finger works touch keyboard for exactly that reason. His early onset carpal tunnel would have otherwise destroyed his career.

So now if only they could get the cool finger works style gestures in iOS.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:38 PM on May 23, 2012


I feel like physical keyboards, whether touch or mechanical, are going to be *the* bottleneck in device design for a long, long time. Everything else about devices can be bleeding edge near-magic technology, but you can't rely on voice-to-text - it's not always convenient to speak aloud - and things like projected virtual keyboards still need a surface to project onto, technologies like that Leap Motion thing don't give you a point of reference for your home row, and stylus-based solutions run up against all sorts of crazy bad chickenscratch handwriting problems. What is there to solve that problem until technology advances far enough to do, like, thought-to-text?
posted by jason_steakums at 10:25 PM on May 23, 2012


I too have always been interested in the idea of chorded keyboards. But someone taught me binary counting on my fingers way back in 1975. It was a finger exercise he'd learned for some instrument (flute, I think).

However, this article is rather amusing in it's complete modern assumption that everyone can type well. Once upon a time, ordinary mortals gaped at professional typists in awe. Watch how magically their fingers fly, producing beautiful printed letters on paper! Amazing! Then watch a normal person with their hunt-and-peck typing. The writer seems unwilling to acknowledge that good typing is a skill.

Now everyone types. Everyone word-processes. It's part of normal skills we are all expected to have. Executives type their own emails, for the most part. I suppose with this goes the denigration of the skill set once known as "secretarial".

The chorded keyboard I remember from back-when was a ball. Some of the buttons (maybe only the thumb) were adjustable to your hand (where it was on the ball). It appeals to me to have a hand free while typing. OTOH (accidental pun!) I can't imagine this being faster than my best typing, which gets extreme after 33 years of computers. (yes, 33 years!)
posted by Goofyy at 10:32 PM on May 23, 2012


So chorded keyboards always seemed nuts to me.

I move one finger to generate most of the keys I type - two fingers for caps. With a chorded keyboard, I'd almost always be hitting three or more keys at the same time.

There's also the issue of rollover, which seems insuperable. Suppose I make the chord that says "a" and then switch to the chord that says "z". Depending on how I lift and lower my fingers, there is almost certainly some intermediate position that's also a valid chord. It seems to me the only way to prevent that is to lift all your fingers off the chord pad and then put them back on again.

I type like a demon. I can't believe I could attain even a fraction of the speed I have on a regular keyboard.

You can also only get 31 possible positions with five fingers. Somehow they have six different switches - which means your thumb is doing two things, bad move! - but that still only gets you to 63. Unfortunately, even when typing in Metafilter I use a lot more than 63 different characters - 26 lower case + 26 upper case + 10 numeric + 10 top row punctuation + 22 other punctuation = 94 keys.


> I recently switched to vim from emacs and I feel so much more productive with vim.

Baffling! I can't imagine giving up all the emacs features that make my life faster and simpler - running a shell inside the editor - directory edit mode - compiling into a buffer - instant creation of macros - keystroke customization.

I can use vi/vim fine but it feels like running through mud. Oh, and there's the annoyance that if you are sitting in a vim buffer and just start typing, you typically trash your buffer because you're in "command mode" - you have to go into a special "typing in" mode, and a second, distinct and different, "editing text" mode to make changes.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:39 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


An even more strong objection to chorded keyboards is that they are not accessible - you need five fingers and all of them working.

As I've implied, I type an awful lot - I've certainly typed hundreds of millions of characters in my professional life - and sometimes my left little finger starts to hurt (partly because of my gonzo emacs use where I bang it on the Meta and Control keys a lot).

I have a simple solution - I take a hair band and "glue" my little finger and third finger together as a unit and use them together. A couple of days of this and I'm back to normalcy.

But I'm not even the issue at all. There are tons of people who are missing one finger or more. There are tons more who have arthritis and have some fingers that are painful. There are an awful lot of people who can only type with a stick held in their mouth.

There are also people who don't know computers, old people, young people, people travelling who are using a somewhat-different set of characters. A keyboard works fine for all of them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:47 PM on May 23, 2012


Interesting that he not only dismisses stenotype machines quickly (because they're syllable/word/phrase-based, not character based), but also ignores various character-based chorded keyboards from the mid-19th century that were developed for morse, baudot, and (later) braille.

Admittedly, there's some context-maintenence needed to use those (e.g. traditional Braille's uppercase modifier & things like "(" and ")", or Baudot's letter/number shift), but there obviously is in the MicroWriter too (else "i" = "2" and "n" = "9").

And it's kinda sad that the whole thing is wrapped in a sort of vague rant about the lack of "specialist" equipment for specialist programmers. I think it's interesting that the closest real analogy (toy pianos, barrel organs, and hand-cut Victrolas aside) is probably the iPad - you need a "professional" computer to program for it, while the masses use the dumbed-down version…
posted by Pinback at 10:55 PM on May 23, 2012


There are also people who don't know computers, old people, young people, people travelling who are using a somewhat-different set of characters. A keyboard works fine for all of them.

I think the interesting question the article presents, though, is whether there might be an input tool that most definitely isn't for everyone, one that may confound the beginner but reward the dedicated.

You're already familiar with this in another realm -- emacs is filling that role for you, and you'd be unlikely to accept as a substitute a text editor for everyone.

I'm pretty fast at touch typing myself -- good enough that sometimes it seems more work to copy and paste than to read and tyoe -- but I've long wondered about the potential of a chording keyboard for the apparent reasons Englebart seems to have conceived of them. Some days I think maybe I want some morse-code like tap interface to portable computer, easy input without even looking...
posted by weston at 11:07 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


lupus_yonderboy, vim does all of those things, perhaps excluding running a shell in the editor. It's not as if vim is the completely modal and relatively simple editor that vi was.

As far as the lack of keys on a chorded keyboard is concerned, there are (were?) both modifier keys and chorded keyboard models that have multiple switches per finger, some even customizable. You're also not limited to mounting the switches in a flat plane.

I used to see some pretty interesting designs before the mouse took over.
posted by wierdo at 11:07 PM on May 23, 2012


Does every conversation about input devices have to be about emacs versus vim??? Let's talk about chorded keyboards, people. What about two handed chorded?
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:27 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about chorded keyboard circuitry in a saxophone and suddenly coding looks like this
posted by jason_steakums at 11:36 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've been waiting with bated breath from the Plover stenography app that lets you use stenography to type on a traditional keyboard without the need for an expensive specialized machine. An average stenographer can easily type 200 wpm.

I've thought about a chorded keyboard, but they are expensive and the switching cost is high, while the benefits of dvorak seem low for the trouble.
posted by Freen at 11:39 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


jason_steakums: "What about chorded keyboard circuitry in a saxophone and suddenly coding looks like this "

I finally know what it means to "favorite hard".
posted by wierdo at 2:48 AM on May 24, 2012


In the mind of today’s technological entrepreneur, the ideal user (and employee) is semi-skilled – or unskilled entirely. The ideal user interface for such a person never rewards learning or experience when doing so would come at the cost of immediate accessibility to the neophyte. This design philosophy is a mistake – a catastrophic, civilization-level mistake. There is a place in the world for the violin as well as the kazoo.

This is so true. The ideal user interface for the skilled person will always be sacrificed for the ease of use by unskilled people. We're all playing kazoos.
posted by three blind mice at 3:41 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I got my droid I went looking for one of these, a small bluetooth left handed keyboard seemed like ti would be very useful. Log in to a server, the screen is quite clear enough to do real work. But all I could find were essentially klunky experiments.

A truly palm sized, molded unit seems like a useful device. Perhaps something can be built with a 3d printer.
posted by sammyo at 3:59 AM on May 24, 2012


I don't think I buy his idea that you can raise productivity with the chorded keyboard. You may be able to increase typing speed, but that is definitely not the same thing - if I'm simply coding away, one line to the next, speed is not the issue because I want to be thinking while I'm doing it and don't want to run the risk of my hands going faster than my mind. When writing text (like I'm doing now), that's not an issue because I'm used to speaking, and I write like I speak, so the bottleneck is always going to be my fingers.

argybarg's analogy of low-usability, high-functionality text editors is a good one - I was editing some code just this morning and flying through it because I know all the keyboard shortcuts I need and can get to where I need to go. Using a chorded keyboard (which doesn't remotely have the number of key combinations I'd need) would slow down that operation considerably.

I would be interested to know what the next stage in input for programming is going to be. Very little other than the mouse/keyboard combination has the flexibility and accuracy you'd need at the moment - you definitely can't use text-to-speech, touchscreens tend not to be that accurate (imagine trying to fat-finger the cursor onto this side of the semicolon, not that side), 3D manipulation of virtual objects is little more than a gimmick right now...quite some way still to go.
posted by ZsigE at 4:57 AM on May 24, 2012


One area not forseen by Doug Englebart - but where chorded keyboards can be particularly useful - is when one is using a mobile device. Sure - perhaps you can touch type on a desktop - but I would challenge you to be able to do so on a smartphone while looking where you were going or watching my face.

I met Thad Starner way back in the 90s. He had a computer featuring a head mounted display in front of one eye and a Twiddler mobile chorded keyboard for typing. He is still using this setup (what we see; what he sees).
posted by rongorongo at 6:47 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The ideal user interface for such a person never rewards learning or experience when doing so would come at the cost of immediate accessibility to the neophyte. This design philosophy is a mistake – a catastrophic, civilization-level mistake.

I cannot agree enough with this and I feel it's one of the biggest contributors to the decline in the quality of content and level of interaction on the internet and the functionality of computers in general. FreeBSD, for instance, took me quite a bit of learning and time to get set up and running, but once you know where everything is, you know where everything is. Two commands on a single line can update and re-compile all the software on your system. Changes in important system files and locations are provided with updates. I don't think everyone should use FreeBSD, but after putting the time into learning about it, I felt more empowered and connected to the machine, if that makes sense.

Google "verbatim" is another example. I did 4 or 5 searches looking for some game-controller-based chorded keyboards, getting thousands of useless results. Tried it with verbatim on and I got 4 results, one of which was exactly what I was looking for. It takes some finessing of search terms, but I learned how to do that back when, well, you had to do it.

Keyboards are another thing...I've tried quite a few, using a Kinesis Maxim keyboard right now, which I finally broke (cosmetically) after 40 hours/week for 5 years. I have a pair of datahands, which are interesting, but kind of awkward to use, especially the arrow-based mouse. My idea was to have one on each hand of a reclining chair with a monitor mounted in front. I'm still not there yet. I did, however, learn colemak, which is a pleasure to type in. It took about a month, switching between layouts (which you aren't supposed to do). Kvkso ;jck lj a whluk L would start typing in the wrong layout, but other than that it was fine. This was brought on by a weekend where I couldn't straighten out my right-hand fingers without pain when I was 23.

When I got my droid I went looking for one of these, a small bluetooth left handed keyboard seemed like ti would be very useful. [...] But all I could find were essentially klunky experiments.

It looks like the market's still about the same. There's the twiddler 2, but it's USB only. This small, half-qwerty, PS/2 keyboard is $595. Here's another slightly different USB-only one.Pretty much everything else seems home-made and I could see something like this being useful to quite a few folks. Wikipedia calls what I'm imagining a Keyer and that would be a sweet project...maybe I'll get to it after I finish the other ones...

As mentioned above, here's the data egg.
posted by nTeleKy at 1:13 PM on May 24, 2012


Virtually every profession has a concept of professional equipment. It tends to be costlier, sturdier, more solid, more rewarding of dedicated training, more difficult to obtain, than equipment intended for amateurs.

There article implies on multiple occasions that there are two kinds of computer users: programmers and consumers. As if nobody else uses their computers professionally.

The professional equipment argument is just strange and almost completely wrong. The tools may be costlier, but difficult to learn and difficult to obtain, out of principle, or what? Sturdier and more solid, maybe for construction tools, but not to a professional athlete, where weight and performance is everything. Interestingly, quality (of the result, not the tool) isn't even mentioned. Why?

That's not to say these input devices are not interesting and that faster typing is not a worthy goal. Those things are cool and I hope there's more research done in that field.
posted by romanb at 2:38 AM on May 25, 2012


So the above linked data egg has been mothballed. But the world awaits a smartphone manufacturer who simply adds a sufficient number of programmable buttons to the sides of their device - then it would be possible to make a chording keyboard app. Studies have shown that such an input device could allow people to type at 27wpm after about 8 hours practice rising to 47wpm after 25 hours (source). That is might be, say, 40% faster than one could achieve with an on screen keyboard. That would not be a spectacular difference - but, if combined with the ability to look at something other than the keyboard while typing, it would be quite appealing - a good tool for note taking in a meeting for example.
posted by rongorongo at 4:01 AM on May 25, 2012


the ability to look at something other than the keyboard while typing

Given what my typing accuracy is even when I'm actually looking at the screen, this probably won't be a very workable idea, especially if it requires a lot of weird key combos. Now if you add in a headset display for text, that could work. But I don't know if cyborgs have much luck in their dating attempts.
posted by Chekhovian at 12:32 PM on May 25, 2012


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