September 17, 2004


A Keyboard with Just Ten Keys Simplifies Typing

* This article is under copyright protection.

Manabu Akaike
Universal Design Intelligence Inc.

There is a writer of historical romances called Ransei Etoh. This writer suffers partial paralysis from a spinal disability. He has always used a computer and his disabled fingers to type out his novels. Among his friends was a student at the University of Tokyo, who conceived of an utterly new type of computer handset made just for typing in Japanese in order to enhance his friend Etoh's literary life.

The Tagtype, as the device is known, has just ten main keys or buttons. These correspond to the ten groups of the fifty phonetic sounds of Japanese, each of which starts with the same consonant and has five different vowel sounds. To type "ke,'' for example, first you press the button for the ''ka group." The button then displays the selection ''ka, ki, ku, ke, ko" on both sides of the handset, so you can push the fourth button on either side to select ''ke." It takes just two clicks of the keyboard, like a double click of the mouse, to speedily enter any Japanese word phonetically.

The Tagtype prototype had two distinct features, one being that it used the Japanese fifty phonics system instead of the alphabet to enter words, and the other being the small size of the buttons. Studies of test users at the University of Tokyo show that people who have used the device for just 20 hours can already enter fifty phonics in just sixty seconds. This is a fully viable speed for both commercial and practical application.

The Tagtype also has major potential in terms of suggesting new directions for universal design in that it was developed specifically to meet Japanese values, as it is for exclusive use with the Japanese language.

Shunji Yamanaka is the one who brought this conception to reality in such a charming form. He was very conscious of building in the capability for people to type using just their thumbs, which is the easiest digit for the elderly and many disabled people to use, and to be able to type in a natural posture without the support of a keyboard or desk. He made the Tagtype in a shape usually associated with game machine handsets, and achieved a highly refined design. He enlisted the help of prototype maker Nichinan to give form to this universal keyboard that would enable "high speed typing using just the thumbs'' envisioning a new style for using Japanese anywhere, easily, without a desk or keyboard. Therein lies the products abundant potential for creating new markets for information appliances among children, the elderly and the disabled, which have been difficult groups for appliances with traditional keyboards to penetrate.

Uniting the Power of Individuals Without Depending on a Manufacturer

This compact new keyboard that looks like a game machine handset is easy to use for both the elderly and young children. Its superior design enables it to be used even while lying in bed or playing outdoors.

Children that are used to playing with game machines can learn to use the Tagtype in no time. Of course the Tagtype can be plugged into a game controller. And the most important part is that it can be plugged into a cell phone or other mobile data device, or the remote controls of a TV or any other household appliance, so there is much to look forward to in the further development of the Tagtype as a standard for communicating with the information appliances of the future.

The development of this universal device took shape through a meeting of the minds of individuals in the technical, design and prototype testing fields, without reliance on any manufacturing entity. ''Technology developed by small enterprise has a strong surface visual impact that the user feels comfortable with immediately. The days when design took a backseat to technology are over. The development process wherein design and technology advance hand-in-hand may soon become the standard for product development," says Yamanaka.

This is a new style of manufacturing, wherein a designer gives shape to a fresh technology that has not yet been fully realized, releasing the technology to the public so that makers and users alike can evaluate it at an early stage and work together to improve the product. Yamanaka's group contribution style of development may shake up the old style of development that entrusted the right or wrong of a new technology to the vagaries of the free market.

JAPAN CLOSE-UP, October 2002, published by PHP

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