After decades of uncertainty, virtual reality technology has made significant strides toward a consumer-level VR user system. Oculus has scheduled the release of their Rift for the first quarter of 2016. There are plenty of kits and tutorials readily available online for creating do-it-yourself virtual reality headsets, which often involve little more than a smartphone, some cardboard and a little Velcro. It seems we are quickly approaching a new digital revolution, and the next level of our immersion into digital space is near. But how will this affect one of our oldest and most faithful connections with the digital world — the keyboard?
An Uncertain Future
The QWERTY keyboard is believed to have been developed during the 1800s by telegraph operators, then finalized by a businessman named Christopher Scholes in his early typewriter designs. It was normalized as a computer interface in the early days of personal computing, and indoctrinated into generations of users such as myself during early education. With recent technology pushing for a more ergonomic keyboard design, and with virtual reality almost at our fingertips — newer typing interfaces could conceivably manifest within the 3-D virtual reality space.
The virtual interactive keyboard may sound like a boring and ordinary way to apply technology as impressive and eagerly anticipated as virtual reality, but it could be the virtual reality systems’ killer app — the software that ends up selling consumers on VR technology. It is not a new idea (there exists research on the potential implementation of this technology published over a decade ago) and surely there are many other alluring attractions (gaming, for instance) that VR might instead push as key selling points. But other applications in the VR space could include or involve social media, interactive content, and basic word processing — all of which would benefit from a simple virtual typing solution.
A New Environment
Head tracking virtual reality technology uses the “six degrees of freedom” principle to map out and analyze head movement. If fine hand movements could also translate into motion track data and if touch points could be determined and translated into alphanumeric characters, with low latency and high accuracy, then users (e.g. writers, coders, etc.) could have a substantial time- and energy-saving resource at hand.
Additionally, the virtual keyboard could add additional comfort and ease of use for typists in any environment. Many companies invest in ergonomically oriented chairs for their office workers, as there is a clear need as well as a widespread movement toward workstations that attempt to cater to the long-term health of office workers. But office chairs, as expensive as they tend to be, are often cycled in and out of use, as they can wear out or become outdated fairly quickly.
A virtual keyboard could allow typing from any posture or position — be it sitting, standing or lying down. This may not seem to be making the most out of virtual reality technology on the surface. But think about the effects that hours sitting in a chair at a desk has on your body. Carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, back pain — all can feasibly result from excessive time spent sitting behind a desk. What if the desk/chair configuration were replaced by the freedom of typing in the virtual reality space? The ergonomic benefits to this could be limitless. (For more on the future of tech, see Say Goodbye to Today's Technology.)
Of course, there are alternative input methods to typing that may seem more useful in the virtual reality environment than the old keyboard. Voice recognition may be the preferred method for users and functions that benefit from hands-free input, though the technology currently on the market leaves a lot of room for improvement. New experimental text input technology might pop up here and there, however it would take a truly innovative method to displace the QWERTY keyboard, whose design has lasted almost two centuries now due to its strategic design and ease of use.
Convenient access is a key component to the potential success of virtual reality, as recent history has shown it to be with mobile technology. Multi-touch capability enabled unprecedented access to digital content through the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and other touch-screen devices, and many keyboard apps also feature a swipe function to help users formulate text quickly and efficiently. User devices in the world of digital content seem to have evolved around the concept of mobile access and simplified typing — from the earliest consumer computers to the modern digital era.
Most, if not all, of the earliest known killer apps have been word processors in some form. The first applications to popularize the use of personal computers are widely considered to be spreadsheet programs such as VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. These programs led not only to the proliferation and evolution of the PC as a common household and business/workplace item, but also to its application as a highly efficient word processing solution. (For more on this, see How Spreadsheets Changed the World: A Short History of the PC Era.)
As new virtual reality technology is rolled out for mass consumption, it remains to be seen which applications will elevate VR into the realm of daily life. Gaming, entertainment and other forms of three-dimensional, immersive “experiences” will be pushed on consumers as selling points for the exciting new technology. But the pragmatism of a virtual reality keyboard could conceivably be the feature that converts non-users into VR consumers, possibly on a massive scale.