Tap’s Keyboard, the Evolving of Voice, and a Changing Computer
The near-future of computing will be defined not only in what we do with it, but how we interface our worlds through it
In some respects, there is a truth to saying that keyboards define how and why we use computers. Perhaps, our gaze at the abilities demonstrated with various forms of computers are conformed and informed by science fiction regardless of generation. But, there is something to be said about what it means to change or challenge the way that you use a computer. Since first getting an iPad (owned 1st gen and several more), I’ve been around this kind of revolution. And now, one of latest accessories for my iPad has taken that expectation for advancement a good step further.
Tap Wireless Keyboard
The Tap wireless keyboard is a wireless (Bluetooth) keyboard accessory which connects with any kind of computer or mobile phone. Instead of a traditional QWERTY hardware keyboard, it uses a series of taps — one, two, three, four and even five fingers to register letters, numbers, and symbols. I liken the Tap to learning how to play various chords on the guitar. You are really training the muscles of your fingers to respond differently than the way you may have been taught in a typewriting, wordprocessing, or keyboarding class.
The hardware interface for Tap is a five-finger, nylon-threaded ring. Each of the rings go around the fingers on one hand, and they are connected by a nylon strap. It’s fairly easy for any size hand; however I found that my fingers expand and contract fairly quickly. I often need to readjust the sizing of the rings or the nylon strap. I’ve made the joke on Twitter that wearing Tap public spaces makes me feel as if I’m the Mandarin, a Marvel comic figure known for having several rings of power. And there is some truth to having this power. With Tap, you transform the space on your desk or table to a more comfortable position for deep-thought kinds of work. You don’t lose screen space when you need to start writing. That is, there is no on-screen keyboard which shows up when Tap is activated; only a thin gray bar at the bottom of the screen which shows copy, paste, cut controls. This is a problem if you want to use emoji — you need to disable the tap keyboard. You only lose your flow if the screen is not being disrupted while you are composing.
Tap makes you think a little more about the words being written. This is probably similar to someone who has lost their hearing and has had to learn sign language. The challenge with this keyboard is not that you are writing words at the same pace and cadence as you do with a normal keyboard, but that you are writing things out one letter at a time until you get used to a new way of seeing letters, words, and phrases. When I needed to go into editing this piece, Tap couldn’t play the participant because there’s no concept of a mouse on iOS (the on-screen keyboard does have a 2-finger tap-and-drag-cursor which I use often). To this end, Tap is almost a revolution in computer input, but one best realized when you use it in concert with another input method.
Tap and #VoiceFirst Computing
At the time of composing this, I have finally managed to get most of the letters down for using the Tap keyboard. It is difficult, and I’ve had it for a little over a month. Now, many people might be able to get along a little faster, however I’ve made sure to take my time with this as I believe this would be a more profitable way of using my large iPad. My setup is fairly simple, Tap is on my left hand, the Apple Pencil is in my right hand. And from there I’m doing a combination of tapping with the keyboard when I need to type, or drawing with Pencil in order to complete various input tasks.
That is, right until I get to using Siri.
Compared to some people, I probably use Siri for dictation a bit more then for casual writing. It’s not the perfect dictation assistant. Almost 2 decades ago I used Dragon naturally speaking to try and write papers for college. That was pitiful. Today, Siri is a much more capable assistant with many of the same foibles.
There is this scene in the movie Her where the main character is dictating a handwritten card. There is no mention of punctuation marks, tone, or anything of that sort. There’s just the words would come out of his mouth, which contain the emotions that he wishes to convey, for essentially a piece of marketing. Siri is not yet that good. No voice first system is that good. However, this is exactly where I see things happening. The combination of voice and multiple finger and put mechanisms to create something more powerful than simply typing one letter after the other. The capturing of a motion, that capturing emotion. That’s what I felt as I used Siri to write this. That’s what I feel when using Tap — not when using QWERTY.
The Changing Computer
Years ago, a friend of mine and I went to a mall and he remarked teens have their phones so attached that they were more like appendages rather than communication tools. Even though I laughed at the remark, it was probably the most astute observation that had yet to be widely accepted. Namely, the computer makes more sense when it is personal, not simply just usable. And for the last decade, the computer has rightfully become an appendage. Not because it is more capable, but perhaps because we are more aware of what is possible when we augment rather than try to replace our abilities.
I say this to caution, while also driving on the excitement clearly happening. When we involve more of who we are into creating, the computer becomes more a part of who we are. It’s less about productivity, and more about how can I become a better version of myself (maybe not for others). This experiment/shift with Tap has launched me into understanding this at a very personal level. Writing is an in-depth process, but writing like this (Tap, Pencil, on-screen keyboard, & voice) is creating a much deeper association to what’s being expressed. It is like when finally mastering cursive handwriting — it stops looking like what you were taught, and looks more like who scribbled on the page. Multi-modal inputs change the computer from calculator towards the perspective of identity.
This will eventually also change the hardware that currently serves as the analogy for computing. Apple is trying this now with “iPad is a computer,” but it will go further than that. The changing computer has sensors, it learns by seeing, it adapts to the environment before the user asks of it to compute and transact. Whether ethically serving or not, the computer is evolving fast, and asking of its creator to do the same. Thinking of it as just a screen and keyboard isn’t thinking about computing realistically, or completely.
At least, that’s what this experiment is proving a few months into owning Tap and demoting the Apple SmartKeyboard to a sometimes accessory. When the software catches up… then we can really meld imagination with silicon. Until software catches up, until hardware use is fully realized, these moments serve to empower us to take our expectations and activities further into the future we want to be active participants in creating.