Lead User Innovation: TouchFire iPad Screen-Top Keyboard

When Apple released the iPad I couldn’t wait. A friend in the US who didn’t understand what all the fuss was about ordered one and sent it to me. I was sure it would be perfect for most of what I needed for everyday computing, and I thought I’d soon be doing everything on my iPad except processor-intensive tasks like photo and video editing. When my iPad arrived and I first started using it, I even found typing to be relatively easy; with my small hands and the powerful spellchecker, I didn’t think I’d have any trouble getting used to it.

Some time later, I realized I was still spending my evenings with my MacBook on my lap. In fact, I use the iPad only occasionally at home for browsing, mostly if I feel lazy or when using my laptop for something else.

Since my day job involves technology and innovation, I spent a good deal of time pondering this and wondering what was wrong. What did the iPad need to be able to replace my MacBook for casual computing activities?

I’m a touch typist and do a fair bit of typing on my laptop, so one of the important items on my list of things the iPad needs is better text input. The keyboard and touch pad of my MacBook are more efficient and agreeable to work on than the iPad keyboard for most of what I want to do. Typing on the iPad is too slow, and the combination of tapping the wrong key buttons and the built-in spellchecker can be maddening. Typing with two thumbs on the iPhone is better.

So I was excited when I learned about the TouchFire Kickstarter project to make an on-screen keyboard overlay for the iPad. Tactile screen technology (screens with textures that you can feel, as opposed to touch responsive screens) has been around for several years in the lab as a proof-of-concept, but it is still at least a year or two away from industrialization in consumer devices, or at least it was last fall when I heard about TouchFire. I decided to become a supporter of the project, primarily because I wanted to test the hypothesis that I’d use an iPad more frequently if it had a better keyboard. I also thought it would give me some first-hand idea about what using one of the tactile screens might be like when they finally come to market.

This was the first time I’ve backed a Kickstarter project, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was happy when the project was funded and was hoping to receive my TouchFire in time for Christmas. That didn’t happen. Steve Isaac and Brad Melmon, the product designers behind the project, had some manufacturing issues, so deadlines slipped. It ended up being a much, much longer wait. Instead of shipping at the end of December, they shipped six months later at the end of June. Fortunately, backers received regular progress updates, 24 in all, which were very instructive and compensated somewhat for the disappointing delays.

Now, about eight months later, my TouchFire has finally arrived. It was waiting for me in the mailbox when I came home from work on Tuesday. Unfortunately, aside from unboxing and a few basic tests, I didn’t have enough time then to decide how much of a difference it made, but I’m doing so right now (Wednesday), as this post was entirely typed on my iPad with the TouchFire (or was before Evernote lost the original and I had to retype it).

My first impressions were mixed. The packaging was simple and well-designed, but the materials were of average quality. Inside the cardboard box was a thin hard black plastic case with the TouchFire neatly folded inside.

When I removed it, I was surprised by how flimsy the plastic seemed. I was also rather disappointed to realize it would be a dust magnet; I’ve avoided a number of iPhone cases and “skins” for precisely the same reason. When I reminded myself that the important thing about the keyboard is how it feels, I quickly got over these misgivings.

Attaching the TouchFire to my iPad1 was easy, and after a few minor adjustments, it fit nicely on top of the on-screen keyboard.

The plastic feels a little sticky, but overall it’s not unpleasant. Being able to feel the keys makes it psychologically easier to type, even if I still end up making orders of magnitude more mistakes than when I type on my MacBook’s keyboard.

The keyboard is well-designed with a smooth flat area on the bottom over the space bar, which allows swiping when the iPad is in horizontal display mode. The TouchFire folds out of the way easily when you you want to use the full screen touch surface without the keyboard, but it’s not even necessarily to remove it for taking quick breaks from typing because you can simply tap through it if you want to change apps.

The TouchFire is also fast and simple to remove and store in the hard shell case, which is small and light for carrying compared to most external keyboards.

There are a few drawbacks though. I find the $50 price a bit high given the average quality of the materials and finish. I wonder if most iPad users will be willing to invest so much in a thin plastic keyboard that doesn’t have the luxurious look and feel of the device itself. While I find that being able to feel the keys makes a difference, I still have many more errors than when typing on my MacBook keyboard. It’s important to remember you can’t really let your fingers rest too heavily on the keys because the slightest pressure may end up “tapping” one or more letters simultaneously. This makes me think that sophisticated multi-touch algorithms will be needed to implement keyboards on tactile touch screens in order to distinguish between fingers tapping on the “buttons” or simply resting on them. That should be an interesting technical challenge for the engineers.

Overall, I’m happy I decided to back this project. It will take more use for me to form a final opinion, but the TouchFire is a good example of lead user innovation, and I’m sure tablet makers will also be watching to see how users react and what lessons can be learned from it.

Bonus: While typing this post, I discovered that when you put two fingers on the space bar, one on each side, and draw them apart, you get this:

Now I wonder what that is for?

In any case, having made a screen snap of that was lucky because it allowed me to quickly retype most of this post after it was lost it in an Evernote sync operation. Even so, I could not have retyped it nearly as quickly on my iPad with TouchFire as I did on my MacBook.

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4 Responses to Lead User Innovation: TouchFire iPad Screen-Top Keyboard

  1. mikecane says:

    DOH! That final image is the iPad’s new split keyboard, sorta similar to the one UMPCs had back in the day, called DialKeys:

    Type with your thumbs.

    • laura says:

      Thanks, I hadn’t heard about that. I’ll try it, but I think the buttons are too small for my thumbs.

      • mikecane says:

        I could never use those split keyboards.

      • laura says:

        I’m typing this reply with my thumbs on the split keyboard. It takes some getting used to because the two halves are so far apart, but it actually isn’t that bad.

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