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Microsoft RearType Puts Keys on Back of Slates



Microsoft researchers are playing with the idea of putting full QWERTY keyboards on the back of slate devices. This particular Microsoft research team is exploring ways to improve text entry on devices that typically don’t have physical keyboards. In a research report, test subjects were able to learn how to type with RearType at an average of 15 WPM after one hour of training.

So why is Microsoft toying with the idea of slapping a keyboard on the back of slate devices?

Despite the increasing popularity of larger form factor mobiledevices such as Tablet PCs, Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), e-inkbased devices (e.g., Amazon’s Kindle), or the Apple iPad,enabling effective methods for text entry on these devices remainsa difficult problem. Techniques that utilize direct on-screen inputwith a pen or touch rarely approach the text entry speeds of aregular keyboard, and perhaps more importantly suffer from theproblem where the user’s hands significantly occlude screencontent, often requiring contortions of the hand and fingers toachieve a workable tradeoff between reading the screen andentering text. Regular physical keyboards obviously enablemuch faster entry speeds, but fitting them onto these devices whilemaintaining usability in mobile scenarios remains an industrialdesign challenge.

There are a handful of game-controller style keyboards that might have served as a better starting point than a full-sized QWERTY keyboard. One I tried out a few years ago is called AlphaGrips.

Mary Jo Foley has more details over at ZDNET and you can read the full research report from Microsoft here.



  1. GoodThings2Life

    08/10/2010 at 11:46 am

    Wow, this would drive me absolutely insane! What the heck are they thinking?!

  2. Scott

    08/10/2010 at 12:23 pm


    Just no.

  3. Chris Hickie

    08/10/2010 at 12:26 pm

    I posted about hoping someone would do this last week on the article about what the Microsoft surprise was.

    This is good news if they bring it to market. I would use this in a heartbeat. I’m not looking one bit at my desktop keyboard as I type this and I wouldn’t need to look at a split keyboard on the back of a slate either after getting used to it for a day or two.

    Thank you Microsoft

  4. ChrisRS

    08/10/2010 at 2:08 pm

    Very interesting.

    I have to think that if MS put some effort into getting their partners to manufacture and produce a slate type device there would be somthing to attach these “Backside Buttons” to. I am more interested in the frontside and body of these phantom devices, than to an alternate input method. THERE IS NOTHING TO HAVE A PRIMARY INPUT METHOD FOR! I guess we will need to look to apple to determine what thesis will be attached to.

    Seriously, MS is so far behind that letting this kind of information out makes them look foolish.

  5. Gary Harrison

    08/10/2010 at 3:29 pm

    How about adding a detachable keyboard that just folded in the back when it wasn’t needed…oh, that’s the TC1100.

    • Xavier Lanier

      08/10/2010 at 5:45 pm

      FYI- Last time I talked to HP’s CTO he mentioned that he’s well aware of Tablet fans’ repeated requests for TC1000 series features on current products. Why HP doesn’t build a TC1000-like device, or at least incorporate the detachable keyboard, is beyond me.

  6. Sharon

    08/10/2010 at 8:23 pm

    This looks just like something some other company was showing at CES a year or two ago, doesn’t it? I remember a video with a guy typing on the back of the screen. Sorry to be vague about it, but my memory is foggy.

  7. Jonathan

    08/10/2010 at 9:43 pm

    This is a terrible idea. On screen keyboards are fine on the run. If I need full speed I’ll just sync my Microsoft BlueTooth keyboard… not that hard.

  8. Chris Hickie

    08/11/2010 at 3:06 am

    A lower profile keyboard (Apple is good at them) than the one shown on a slate would be ideal for me when I’m seeing patients in clinic. I never could get handwriting recognition on a tablet PC to work well enough for me (big surpise, doctors’ handwriting is almost always horrible),and when I went to desktops in my exam rooms with touchscreens, I still wound up typing on a regular keyboard, which forces me to turn from the patient when I do this. It would be worth it to be able to type on a slate tablet while looking at my patients.

  9. Itsuro Yoshimoto

    08/11/2010 at 1:42 pm

    Micorsoft does not learn from history.
    People do not want to learn new input method.
    How many great input solutions were died so far just becuase of something new key layout?

    If Microsoft want to change QWERTY keyboard, then they should invest their xbox game controller for younger generation to train them first, then wait until they adopts and grow up…

    Otherwise, still to the current QWERTY, and come up with something smarter approach.^_^

    • Itsuro Yoshimoto

      08/11/2010 at 1:49 pm

      Ohoops, sorry..
      Actually, Microsoft’s approach was QWERTY, isn’t it.
      And new unique keyboard for game controller…
      Good luck!^^!

  10. Nameless

    08/14/2010 at 2:07 pm

    That’s a CH Products Multi-Function Panel in the first pic! (It’s basically an Ergodex DX1 that uses CH’s Control Manager as its driver package instead-which also brings ludicrous scripting capability to every key and integration with their flight sim peripherals.)

    I don’t like the idea of backside buttons on a slate, though. Why? If I set it down flat on a table or desk or some other surface, the keys would be depressed and the device just goes crazy with keycodes. NOT GOOD.

    My opinion has always been that if you want on-screen touch and/or pen input along with a keyboard, get a convertible Tablet PC that doubles as a capable laptop.

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