Pianist promises to usurp QWERTY keyboards

June 24, 2013 // 9:43 a.m.

Tags: #azerty #colemak #crowd-funding #dvorak #fundageek #joseph-krush #k200k #keyboard-layout #krush-keyboard #qwerty #qwertz

A retired pianist turned inventor has come up with what he claims is a revolutionary design of keyboard with which he hopes to supplant the QWERTY standard - and in doing so boost typing speeds up to 200 words per minute.

Joseph Krush, co-inventor of a triangular twist on the Rubik's Cube puzzle and former professional pianist, has been using keyboards since 1960 - both the musical type and those of mechanical typewriters. Since then, the then-six-year-old Krush has seen technology grow apace with his Underwood typewriter being long replaced with a computer keyboard - but is curious as to why the key layout has remained the same.

Most modern keyboards - at least those targeting English-language typists - use the QWERTY layout, named for the first six keys on the top-left letter row. While some small variants exist for other languages - chiefly AZERTY for France and Belgium and QWERTZ in Germany and Central Europe - the overall layout is typically the same. QWERTY and its variants are all based on a layout originally developed for Sholes and Glidden typewriters in the 1870s before being tweaked by Remington and Sons for the 1878 Remington No. 2 typewriter, which was designed to speed typing by moving commonly-used keys further apart to prevent the type-bars from striking together and jamming during fast typing.

Since then, however, changes have been minimal. Despite the rapid progression of technology in the intervening years - it's unlikely Sholes and Glidden could have predicted the laptop computer - the QWERTY layout survives, with only minor modifications such as the inclusion of the numerals 0 and 1, the addition of computer-related function keys and the invention of the calculator-mimicking numeric keypad. After all, it works; why change?

Krush believes he has an answer: the opportunity to vastly increase typing speeds, to the point where a trained typist could easily hit 200 words per minute using a modified layout. By contrast, a 1998 study put the average typing speed for transcription work at around 33 words per minute while a 1997 report (PDF warning) suggested that speeds of up to 100 words per minute made for a professional typist. In other words: Krush is promising nothing less than a doubling in typists' performance.

The keyboard, known as the K200K, features a layout vastly different to that of a typical QWERTY design. Based around three rows of twelve keys, the K200K includes functions not normally found: a Word key, and a Double Shift key. The former, Krush explains, allows for single-key word completion from pre-programmed entries on the top two rows and from customisable macros on the bottom row - a feature readers old enough to remember Sir Clive Sinclair's esoteric ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum keyboards will find familiar. The latter, meanwhile, allows for a second shift function to make up for the loss of dedicated numeric keys - putting the numeral 1 on the O key, the numeral 2 on the A key to its right and so forth.

'I first got the idea for the Double Shift key over 20 years ago, some time in the early 1990s,' Krush explains. 'But today, it is an even better idea than it was then, because today it is possible to program keys. I have not designated any letters or numbers or symbols for the Double Shift key to be used together with the keys of the bottom row, but clearly there is a lot of potential here, because twelve keys are available. We could add international symbols, or foreign language letters, or symbols such as accents and cedillas, or anything else that users could find useful.'

The most interesting feature of the K200K, however, comes from Krush's musical background: the 36 keys across the three rows correspond to three octaves of notes - a happy coincidence that Krush is eager to exploit by associating each key with a single musical note. 'This association will enable users to associate letters and fingers with pitches,' claims Krush, explaining that he sees the possibility for such a system to aid blind users in entering text. 'This much I know for sure: many blind persons have an incredibly good sense of hearing, even if they are not musicians. There has to be a way to associate letters with pitches that will make life easier for them.'

Krush isn't the only man who thinks he can improve upon a near century-and-a-half-old design. Over the years numerous 'successors' to QWERTY have been launched to great fanfare, only to disappear shortly thereafter. The Dvorak layout, developed by August Dvorak and William Dealey in 1936, was one of the most successful - layouts for Dvorak users are a feature of all modern operating systems - but is still rare, despite being used for Barbara Blackburn's world-record 170 words per minute burst-rate; the more QWERTY-like Colemak layout is rarer still.

More dramatic alterations to the design of the keyboard have included chording keyboards - like the Microwriter - and stenotype keyboards, the latter of which allows for sustained text entry at a rate of up to 225 words per minute but requires extensive training and practice to become proficient. Neither have caught on in the mainstream, nor come anywhere close to the ubiquity of QWERTY.

Krush admits that his work is in the very early stages - he has applied for a patent, and currently seeks funding to finalise the application while students at an unnamed technology-centric university in Europe work on the design. Thus far, Krush has not produced a prototype - planning one for some time in 2014, ahead of a small-scale production run of up to 100 units - but already has plans for how he will convince users to switch from QWERTY. 'Once the new keyboard comes out, I plan to organize typing competitions literally by the hundreds, in all provinces and states of all English-speaking countries,' claims Krush. 'This can easily be done over the internet, and it is amazing what an attractive amount of prize money can achieve!'

For now, however, Krush's keyboard remains little more than a diagram and a provisional patent application with backers so far providing just $145 towards his target $9,000 goal on crowd-funding site FundaGeek. Whether Krush will be rembered as the man who supplanted the QWERTY layout, or the K200K left as forgotten as the Microwriter, remains to be seen.
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