The search for the perfect keyboard

The perfect keyboardEven for those who constantly use a computer keyboard, the terms “Scroll Lock” or “Pause Break” may not ring a bell. Not surprising, as these are among the least used keys. There are others which too can be easily done away with.

Madhusudan Banik, an IT professional, says, “The ‘Shift’, ‘Ctrl’, ‘Alt’ keys on the right are hardly ever used, unlike the left ones. Same is the case with ‘Delete’, ‘Pause’, ‘Scroll lock’, ‘Page Up’ and ‘Page Down’ keys.” Others say the conventional keyboard, styled on the QWERTY layout of the typewriter, could do with changes.

“Ninety per cent of keyboards adopt the QWERTY design, which was developed in the 1870s. It’s no longer relevant in the 21st century,” says blogger Kumar Arjun. Is it time then, to look at alternatives? Also, can there be an ideal keyboard design that can replace the present one?

Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, says it’s difficult to quantify a keyboard design as ‘ideal.’ “The choice of a keyboard design depends on the needs of the user,” he says. “Most people can use a standard keyboard design without any risk of injury, if it’s correctly positioned. However, if this is not possible, an alternative design might work. For people with very broad shoulders or large individuals who may have difficulty in reaching the keyboard when placed in front of them, a split-angle keyboard might be ideal.” This splits the keys at a fixed angle to reduce wrist discomfort.

These designs address the primary requirement of a keyboard – to facilitate efficient typing. And the layout of various characters is significant in this regard. Kalyanmoy Deb, professor at IIT Kanpur, co-authored a technical paper on the Hindi keyboard. He says that if frequently occurring characters are not easily accessible, the rate of typing goes down. “An ill-designed keyboard might place a disproportionately high load on weaker fingers of the hand, leading to typing fatigue or even musculoskeletal injuries later. Hence, thought should be given to the most optimal arrangement of characters.”

There are many who say the Dvorak keyboard – developed in the 1920s by August Dvorak and William Dealey – is among the best designs, both for its layout and arrangement of characters. “It provides the least finger fatigue because the most used letters are in the first alphabet row. This layout was introduced specifically to make people type faster, whereas QWERTY was introduced to make people type slower so as not to jam the typewriter head,” explains Banik.

A good ergonomic design is all the more relevant now as more people are using computers. “Before the advent of the PC, typing was mainly done by professional typists who were relatively few and who were properly trained in wrist posture,” says Hedge. “But now, the vast majority of people have no training in how to position their hands on the keyboard in such a way that it doesn’t affect their health.”

However, laptop manufacturers have realized the need for change and brought their keys down to just the essential ones. It’s time even keyboard manufacturers follow suit, suggests Banik. “If they can’t remove certain keys, they can look at changing their functionality to just the essential.”

Manufacturers are slowly realizing this and customizing their products. Some time back, TVS Electronics launched a keyboard for the Indian market, incorporating the Rupee symbol. But any new addition/key should be supported by various Operating Systems of computers,” says Banik. “In any case, apart from the Rupee symbol, there is hardly any other Indian character which is universally used online. A better idea is to have glowing letters on mainstream keyboards – like watches – so that people can use their computers in the dark, if needed.”

Clearly, the hunt for the ‘perfect’ keyboard is on. But are manufacturers listening?

 

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