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June 2, 2007 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Dasher is text input informed by information theory. It's also trippy. David MacKay recently gave a talk in the Google TechTalks series. You can download a prototype at the official site. Plenty useful, but perhaps also a new metaphor for writing?
posted by ontic (33 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
There is a 2002 thread without the video. Thought I'd take my chances on the dupe since it was five years ago and many people might not see it otherwise. Kudos to salmacis for finding it early.
posted by ontic at 6:28 PM on June 2, 2007


Douglas Crockford of JSON fame invented this keyboard:
A B C D
E F G H
I J K L M N
O P Q R S T
U V W X Y Z
which is surprisingly regular and apparently useful.

Dasher is, of course, what I consider the future to be, machines doing all the work. Just last month I had a 'welcome to the future' moment when the ATM OCRd the check I had just deposited, removing yet another occasional hassle in my life.

Bezos has a theory of AI that asserts "predicting" is the core functionality of intelligence, which dovetails into my pet theory that moving quickly through high treetops -- a relatively unforgiving environment requiring excellent predictive skills -- is highly conducive, and may even be a gating condition, to evolutionary development of mental skills.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 6:45 PM on June 2, 2007


gVideo link broken.

Dasher can be trained on examples of any writing style, and it learns all the time, picking up your personal turns of phrase.

Their history page should acknowledge Daedalus who invented this same thing back in 19NM (unfortunately I can't find the page in either book of his I have, but it has to have been over 10 years ago, probably more like 20). I would say more but I should totally write this guy up as a FPP since he rules.
posted by DU at 6:53 PM on June 2, 2007


Oh wait, here it is. The index had it under "Computer, predictive word-processing" instead of "typing". Pff. Anyway, it's from 21 October, 1978. Wow. Key graph:

The Cliche-machine is...programmed with a full dictionary of English words and the basic rules of grammar, and as soon as the next letter or letters are not in doubt, it types them in for you. ... [The] machine learns from experience. It analyses statistically all the sentences typed on it by its owner and steadily compiles and updates a probability table of what is coming next.

The effect on writing is also touched on:

The determined author will fight a constructive battle with his Cliche-machine. He will see his bad habits, stock phrases and routine arguments coming automatically out in there usual places, and will be spurred on to be more original.
posted by DU at 6:58 PM on June 2, 2007


Here is a working link for MacKay's Dasher Google TechTalk.
posted by RichardP at 6:58 PM on June 2, 2007


Hmm. It was working earlier. This works from my preview. Maybe an admin could patch it in?
posted by ontic at 6:59 PM on June 2, 2007


Ooh and this bit in the comments afterwards: ...my scheme for a Cliche-machine was soon overtaken by events in 1987 I came across what may well be its first independent realization: a word-processing program called "Mindreader", from Brown Bag Software. ... Since then, programs like this have become more common, but...have not displaced the conventional passive word processor.
posted by DU at 7:01 PM on June 2, 2007


Hmm. I believe I just heard Flaubert snicker.
posted by Haruspex at 7:35 PM on June 2, 2007


I briefly used a program called Reactive Keyboard in the late '80s or early '90s on a unix box — it had the same predictive/learning/Markov basis.

What I find interesting about Dasher is not the basic idea of a predictive input system (which has obviously been around for a while) but the arithmetic/range-coding technique, which is very cleverly applied to make an efficient user interface. If I find myself carrying a PDA again in the future I plan to make sure it can run Dasher...
posted by hattifattener at 7:55 PM on June 2, 2007


Not necessarily a new metaphor for writing, and much more than predictive input. I saw this video a few months ago, and installed Dasher on my machine to play with... IMHO, the impressive part of Dasher is that it is a uniform, simple method of input. In the video you'll see the presenter 'typing' a sentence just by breathing in and out. The big bonus of this type of input is that it can be tied to any sort of input device and that the same input device can work with any language.

A tiny little joystick or touchpad on your cellphone will let you 'type' (maybe at about half the speed of a full sized keyboard after a few typing classes) in an intuitive way in any language. Even if you're mostly paralyzed and can only manage to wiggle your finger, or hold your breath, or move your eyes, you can still use the same input method.

It's still very impressive, and I totally wish that I could use it on my cellphone instead of the normal numeric keypad.

(It's even trippier when you try Japanese input.)
posted by zengargoyle at 8:02 PM on June 2, 2007


One could easily enough use mind control to select the sentences, then.

It would become truly eerie if it turned out to be able to be perfectly accurate after a week-long training period...
posted by five fresh fish at 8:09 PM on June 2, 2007


In fact, I'll bet one could get a Mac, with its built-in camera, to do simple flick-up/flick-down eye movement recognition. And if one could get it refined enough, I'll bet it'd support short-cutting: identifying which several-boxes ahead you're looking directly at.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:11 PM on June 2, 2007


I'm trying to write.This post with dasher and it sucks
posted by delmoi at 8:27 PM on June 2, 2007


Okay seriously. It's very slow when you want to write a word as "uncommon" as 'sucks'. For me at least, it was an exercise in frustration, far slower then typing on cellphone or using virtual keyboard on a first-gen WinCE PDA. definitely not a speed increase for me.
posted by delmoi at 8:31 PM on June 2, 2007


The default demo settings are too slow. Set the speed to fast.

Writing that took two minutes.
posted by gsteff at 9:52 PM on June 2, 2007


delmoi: I tried to write what you wrote and it's not bad actually if you speed it up from its default settings.

When the iPhone comes out and some sort of SDK comes available, either official or unofficial (a la BackRow SDK), MacKay should get Dasher ported to it. Imagine just surfing the side of the screen at high speed with your finger to write out a sentence, a hell a lot of faster than taping small areas on the screen representing a virtual keyboard.

You can even split the screen in two: one side holds your standard alphabetical letters while the other side holds punctuation to speed it up a little. Make it shiny and I can really see it taking off and becoming the T9 of touch screen interfaces.
posted by tksh at 10:04 PM on June 2, 2007


It's surprisingly useful if you set the speed to maximum, but on small screens (even with the Java applet, which if you think about it isn't that small) it becomes very difficult to use because a) the less common targets become very small, and b) letters from multiple levels appear without much to differentiate them from the top level. This is especially confusing when trying to write a word where the next letter doesn't immediately appear in the top level of letters (because it's not common enough) but appears in the next level (because it's very popular). You immediately head to that particular letter, only to realize you're writing the wrong word, which requires backtracking. Also, the Dasher interface takes up screen real estate, meaning it's less useful on handheld devices and probably only slightly less cumbersome than on-screen keyboards.

It's an interesting concept that keeps popping up, but I imagine it'll find its calling as a complement to, not a replacement for, keyboards and handwriting recognition.
posted by chrominance at 10:19 PM on June 2, 2007


Ummmm, if my keyboard sucked, then it would be my favorite...

BAH DUM PAH!

runs and hides
posted by Samizdata at 10:55 PM on June 2, 2007


Delmoi this response was also written in dasher. It gets easier once you spend enough time with it to really grasp the visual metaphors.
posted by treepour at 11:20 PM on June 2, 2007


Also it works much better as a standalone application than a Java applet. This comment was also written with dasher . puctuation however, is a bitch.
posted by treepour at 11:35 PM on June 2, 2007


Entry of a whole bunch of the same letter seems to always eventually crash the program after thirty or more letters, with windows download version 4.4. It also causes some strange visual effects and interesting "predictions" after the first few of the same letter are entered.
posted by Pimonkey at 11:48 PM on June 2, 2007


FWIW, I moved my cursor far to the right and just let it go. Here's what resulted:
June, said. But which had been and block yardZY, or addressed by David sX.RLlvet both an inexturIFrever. If "Tats. A hRE THE would VERost people again, an adding to trAN evideN you about worth affabroky?Yvelyeear if I do needs of the every for polar ophilic remembers, Johnson's bodies. Havy's Ptoles perhaps ity. I'll given them sJoant fifteen. The found that he had my WASholdHoacrew's brothed out,
posted by treepour at 11:50 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


The full version of Dasher should be able to learn the sorts of words you use delmol
posted by grouse at 2:12 AM on June 3, 2007


Funny, I'm Myspace friends with the guy. He's written a pretty great (and free for on-computer use) textbook about information theory and machine learning, the area of math that I'm very interested in, but can't find a damn class on it to take in my Ph.D program...
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 2:35 AM on June 3, 2007


A potential problem with the text prediction is that it is going to incorporate people's passwords, severely weakening otherwise strong passwords.
(typed using dasher)
posted by Tzarius at 2:44 AM on June 3, 2007


I am loving this. I may go with this full time. I think that the screen real estate issues could be solved by having it be some kind of translucent overlay. The biggest problem is that I have to compose what I want to say before I "type" it, because it is so fast.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:44 AM on June 3, 2007


I'm Myspace friends with the guy...

More than just in his extended network, I hope.
posted by imperium at 8:00 AM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know what's fun? Setting the speed to max, and dragging the mouse all the way to the right and letting it go. This is what I got:

"yjewed units o ll recallinpubbelling in his mendymhe llielf spper every myside and diverse but a boileontlyn olyria career ashimninejoices eb follow people and major process nyqkebster of jhs and wherewmenzes their partakzzleys wife z"
posted by suedehead at 8:57 AM on June 3, 2007


It can take a while to get used to, but it's not too difficult, once you get used to it. The biggest issue I'm finding is that I'll look too far ahead when I'm looking for a target which is too small too see, and end up going through an extra box, or skipping a box because I thought I was already going through the right box in between, particularly if the next character is a space.
posted by djlynch at 9:49 AM on June 3, 2007


Nice thing.

And I really like the (not intended?) reference to Borges' The Library of Babel":
Imagine a library containing all possible books...
posted by jazzido at 11:20 AM on June 3, 2007


Works well on the expected (just head straight right after h-e- for "hello my name is"), but pathetically on the unexpected - there are 26 potential choices, but making the ones you 'should' choose huge means the unexpected choices are tiny.
posted by reklaw at 6:26 PM on June 3, 2007


It's been years since I first downloaded this program. I don't know if it's changed at all since then, but one thing I really enjoyed doing with it was simply letting it slide across to the right and write the predicted sentences, word after word, sometimes moving around a little wildly to change it up. It generates these bizarre stream-of-consciousness but statistically probable sentences. Give it a try.
posted by cacophony at 10:00 AM on June 4, 2007


I've been playing with dasher for a couple of days and it's getting pretty fast, in fact I'm using it right now. (That sentence took about a minute to write...)
posted by shanevsevil at 9:43 PM on June 4, 2007


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