Samsung’s invisible keyboard: how does it work?

mobile technology convenience

Samsung has developed a way for smartphone owners to type on a table or other surface as an alternative to tapping on the actual mobile phone screen. Selectra takes a look at the Korean tech giant’s latest invention.

Mobile phone makers pack a lot of tricks into their smart phones, adding innovative functions with every release.

Our handsets can do so many different things that most people rarely use the full range of capabilities available.

Yet, text input is one basic function of phones where manufacturers have failed to make much progress since the original iPhone released in 2007.

Despite some innovations, typing on your phone is still slow and a bit of a pain.

Many would argue the experience has even gone backwards with the almost complete disappearance of physical keypads from our devices.

While Blackberry still have a few models with built-in qwerty keyboards and one or two small firms are trying their hand with physical buttons for text input, the market is otherwise a sea of black mirrors which rely on unsatisfying software keyboards.

Third-party developers have taken up the challenge with some innovative solutions with the likes of MessagEase, CrossTap and 8Pen reinventing the whole idea of how we enter text on our phones.

However, these apps require users to learn a new input system from scratch on top of suffering the same problems affecting more traditional software keyboards: typing on screen just feels cramped and laborious for anything longer than a paragraph or two.

Well, Samsung has a plan which will liberate text input from your screen completely, give you a full-size typing experience and it’s invisible!

How does it work?

The SelfieType “virtual keyboard” made its public debut at CES 2020, the world’s largest consumer electronics exhibition which is held every year in Las Vegas.

To use this keyboard you just need to pop your phone on a stand and type away on whatever surface is in front of you.

Your movements are monitored by your front-facing camera normally reserved for selfies.

The SelfieType system then uses an artificial intelligence (AI) engine to analyze the movements of your fingers and works out what you’re trying to type.

The onscreen keyboard responds to your movements and enters the text in whatever app you’re using.

No extra hardware is needed and the system could potentially be used on any phone, tablet or laptop with a front camera.

When will the SelfieType be released?

Given the system was developed in Samsung’s C-Lab, an in-house incubator that develops ideas from Samsung employees, it would be understandable if it only becomes available to Samsung owners, possibly through a software update.

The SelfieType system is just a research project for the moment with no public release date planned.

That said, 40 previous Samsung C-Lab projects have been spun off as separate companies so there is a good chance customers will get their hands on the tech one day.

It’s worth noting that, just like with haptic and capacitive tech, we have sort of been here before though. Optical virtual keyboards were first patented by IBM in 1992 and various implementations have come and gone since then, but there are still quite a few on the market right now. What has changed is that processing power available on current devices can process user input much more faster than in decades past, leading to a much more seamless user experience.

These systems project an image of a qwerty keyboard on a surface and use camera sensors or infrared beams to work out where the users fingers were going.

Unlike the SelfieType tech, they all require extra hardware in addition to your phone and are connected by USB or Bluetooth to your device.

So why haven’t they taken off?

Some projector keyboards suffer from noticeable latency, there’s a delay between the user hitting the “key” and the machine processing the action. The ability of these devices to accurately interpret what you want to write can be hit and miss too.

They also need to be used on flat, non-reflective surfaces, which can make using them a bit frustrating if your table or desk is a bit too clean and polished and glass tabletops are just not going to work.

The existing projector keyboard solutions all require a user to carry around another bit of kit with them and, while the devices are usually quite pocketable, one more device to carry is one too many for many people.

It’s also one more device to remember to charge as the battery might only last for a few hours.

For professionals looking to work on the go, it makes more sense to invest in a phone-sized BlueTooth keyboard with physical keys.

Is the SelfieType any better?

The SelfieType solves these problems because it’s a built-in software solution that’s always there when you need it.

The one major advantage the existing projector keyboards might have is that they give the typist a visual representation of the keyboard in front of them. The key to widespread appeal with any new feature like this is user interface design giving the necessary sensory cues that lead to an intuitive experience.

But hey, “Invisible Keyboard” sounds great for marketing purposes, so maybe this theoretical minus can be turned into a plus by Samsung’s PR department.

It’s a system which would be quite nice to have as an option on your phone. Some people might use it on a daily basis and most of us have had occasions where quick and ready access to a faster way of inputting text would have been more than welcome. Watch this space.

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