Keypad Technology Promises Speedier Wireless Messaging

By Joseph Palenchar On May 21 2001 - 6:00am

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A technology developed by startup Digit Wireless would simplify wireless-phone text entry by delivering one-touch access to numbers, letters and punctuation through a dialing keypad that's one-third the size of a business card.

The privately held company, incorporated in March, positions the technology as an easier-to-use successor to predictive dialing keypads and to QWERTY-keyboard add-ons. The technology, called Fastap, also delivers almost three times as many finger-size keys in a given space compared to traditional keypads, the company said.

Fastap could also be used to replace the small QWERTY keyboards of dedicated two-way wireless messaging devices with even smaller QWERTY keyboards that would nonetheless be easier to use, the company claimed.

Digit CEO David Levy called wireless messaging "a great technology hidden by a bad interface," and he said U.S. wireless-phone carriers are keenly interested in Digit's technology because "carriers are looking for more revenue sources, and they're pushing data hard."

Levy patented the technology in 1993, when he said he foresaw a time when the shrinking sizes of consumer electronics products would intersect with growing product complexity to require a new text-entry interface. "Wireless is the first product to cross this threshold," said Levy, who headed Apple's ergonomics development for five years.

Digit Wireless is working with Audiovox to include the technology in future phones. The company has also developed production-quality prototypes that it is showing other handset makers.

Although the company is initially targeting the wireless industry, "other industries are approaching us, including the PDA industry," said business development VP Chris Hare. The technology can also be applied to remote controls packaged with TV-top Internet terminals and to home phones that access the Web or send e-mail, the company said.

The technology works like this: A phone's traditional 12-key dialing keypad would be replaced with a Fastap keypad offering as many as 47 keys in slightly less space. Letters would appear on small raised areas that surround larger concave areas, which would be laid out like a traditional dialing keypad. The numbers 0-9 and the # and * signs would appear on the concave areas.

Below this area, additional concave areas would be dedicated to punctuation marks or commands such as delete, shift, and space. These concave areas would be surrounded by raised areas bearing the remaining letters of the alphabet.

The letter keys, though small, would be spaced far enough away from one another so that users could press one key at a time without touching any other key. To select a number or punctuation mark, a user would push down on a concave area.

In doing so, however, the user will actually depress the four surrounding letter keys, which correspond to a number or punctuation mark.

Some keys could be set aside as programmable one-touch buttons to access select Web sites or recall select e-mail addresses, the company noted.

Fastap, the company said, will let users input text faster than they could with Graffiti handwriting-recognition software, and they'll be able to do it with one hand rather than two.

Likewise, small alphanumeric QWERTY keyboards on two-way pagers and on wireless-phone add-on keyboards require two-handed input, Fastap said.

The technology also overcomes the limitations of predictive-input technologies, the company said. To tap out a single message containing letters, numbers and punctuation marks, users have to use an on-screen menu to switch between numeric, letter and punctuation modes.

Predictive technologies, which use a dictionary database, are also limited in their ability to predict proper names or industry jargon, forcing users to switch modes again to the standard letter-input method of tapping a numeric key up to three times each to choose a letter.

In contrast, Fastap is intuitive because each key corresponds to a letter, number, or punctuation mark, the company said.

The cost of materials for building a Fastap keypad into a phone is the same as building a traditional dialing keypad, Levy said. It also uses only 2Kilobytes of ROM to input words from every language based on Roman letters, whereas dictionary-based predictive software requires 150K to store the dictionaries of three languages, Hare said.

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