A cellphone keypad you can actually use to type messages

Geneva (IL) - Not quite two years ago, we reported about an engineer's idea to reorganize the keypad matrix of flip-phones to accelerate the typing-speed of text messages. Now, the keypad has reached prototype status and we had a chance to play with a first version of the "Delta II." The functionality is impressive. What's now missing is an actual phone that makes use of the invention.

As we see more and more features squeezed into our cellphones and Bill Gates promises us that a cellphone will be the key to access all our digital belongings from anywhere in the world, I personally feel the cellphone still has one very distinct purpose: To help people communicate with each other, especially by voice. Even if we see new product generations developing every 12 to 18 months and more and more functionality being packed into small device, it is apparent that the basic feature of the phone has not been enhanced by much lately.

And this is why Dana Suess' idea to improve a key communication feature of the phone feels like a breath of fresh air in this industry. Not another piece of hardware or software, but rather simple idea to improve what we use most - the keypad: While today's cellphone keypad works very well when we need to call somebody, authoring of text messages is a painful task. Suess has developed a keypad not much larger than the keypad of an average flip-phone that swaps the regular 12-key layout with a 50-button layout and promises to make typing text messages more efficient.

Each button on Suess' "Delta II" is slightly larger than for example the buttons of a Palm Treo 600 (which integrates 44 buttons) and may look confusing at first. However, the layout is very similar to a QWERTY layout on a regular computer keyboard. According to Suess, each letter is positioned in a spot where a user - who is familiar with the QWERTY layout - would expect it to be. "Each button is no further than one location away from the actual location you are used to. This allows your eyes to find each key faster than your fingers can touch it."

The Delta II prototype keypad layout compared to the keyboard of a Treo 600.

Three years into ergonomics research, more than a dozen prototypes and hundreds of usability tests, Suess believes he has come up with the ultimate keyboard for a flip-style cellphone. We were able to play a few minutes with a hand-built prototype of the keypad. Cellphone functionality was simulated through a notebook that was connected via USB to the device. Even if I resisted Suess' challenge to time the typing of sentences on different keypads, the advantage of the Delta II keypad became apparent after a few minutes of training. While I typically avoid typing text on a regular cellphone and even my Treo 600, I was able to comfortably use Suess' keypad with two fingers. The typicng speed was significantly higher than on a common cellphone and even the Treo.

Besides the keyboard layout, Suess has come up with a few other features that make you wonder why no one else has figured them out so far. For example, the Delta II software - a 400 kB sized Java application - knows whether you are typing a number or a word. While a regular keypad typically uses a Shift key to allow the user to type numbers instead of letters, the Delta II assumes that "grd" is not an English word and automatically substitutes "grd" with "847." Press the space bar twice and the software knows to set a period - or a question mark, if the first word of the sentence indicates a question. In those rare cases where a three- or four-digit number in fact matches a regular word (such as "245" for "try") the software leaves the original input without correcting it - and provides the user with the option to use a "Num" key to input numbers. And there is always the option to override the auto-correction feature.

Suess has also put some thought into the ergonomics and physics of the keypad itself. On the largest version of the keypad, the buttons are shaped in 7mm x 4mm rectangles, which appear to be large enough to enable a comfortable use. The activation force of the buttons is just under 1.8 Newton (180 gram-force), which is very similar to the Palm's Treo, but significantly less than the force that is required to activate buttons on a typical cellphone. The silicone material of the keypad provided a substantial feel and made it almost impossible to miss a key.

Unfortunately, the Delta II in its current shape is a rough prototype that can only give an impression of the keypad's functionality.

Being a one-man-show, Dana Suess says he has been touring the country to generate interest for the device. He claims that he has received positive feedback a trade shows and that the US military has agreed to run the keypad in a field test - where it hopes to be able to relay cellphone text messages by much quicker than today - once Suess is able to provide at least ten working (camera) phones that integrate Delta II. At this time, Suess has still quite some way to go. But we will be keeping an eye on the Delta II and hope that we will see more than just a cellphone simulation on a notebook screen down the road.

You can try the Delta II in a simulation on Suess' website.

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