The Microwriter, a tiny chording word processor from 1984

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/08/30/the-microwriter-a-tiny-chordi.html

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Also around this time, Steve Roberts built a primitive sort of chording keyboard…for his bike:

The handlebar keyboard itself is simple: four push-button switches are buried in each foam grip, spaced about .75″ apart. I type in a binary code, sort of an ASCII with decoded zone bits: my five strongest fingers, three on the right and two on the left, produce the lower-case alphabet; the right little finger capitalizes. The left little finger is the control key, its neighbor selects numeric and special keys, and those two together cause the others to take on system level meanings such as file operations and major edit functions. In practice, it’s easy — a lot like playing the flute — with each combination accepted by the system when all buttons are released.

Don’t text and ride, kids!

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So mnemonic for “0” is “F you, you get NOTHING!”

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I remember playing with one of these sometime in the early '80s. My dad bought one home from work, where they were considering it for some purpose or other.

It took remarkably little time to pick up the various finger patterns (perhaps the piano lessons were good for something after all??). It only took a couple of evenings to achieve a surprising fluency.

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Yes, I had a related device (can’t recall the name but it had a micro-keyboard and the Microwriter pad) and was equally surprised at how quickly I was “chording” text. And yes, I suspect that piano lessons had quite a bit to do with it.

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“It occurred to me that …"

I’m willing be charitable and grant that he was unaware of technology trends and independently came up with this idea, buuuuut… chorded keyboards were part of Douglas Englebart’s incredibly famous Mother Of All Demos. Definitely not a new idea by 1984. Englebart’s team’s vision for computing was a mouse in one hand and a chorded keyboard in the other. They got it half right, I guess.

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Cy still makes Microwriter keyboards - I have one which I use regularly.

http://www.cykey.co.uk/

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The Xerox Alto had an optional 5 key chord keyset as well as the regular keyboard and 3 button mouse. Some folks kept one hand on the mouse and the other on the keyset and didn’t use the keyboard at all. This was 1972-1980 ish.

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I wonder how a chorded keyboard would go against a standard smartphone keyboard? You could probably code one for a smart phone screen these days, with multitouch.

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you lose the tactile sense that probably is necessary for chording. except, maybe, if you got rid of the keyboard area all together and made it somehow relativeish to wherever a person started.

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See also https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:3433244 fora printable shell to make your own. Software also linked to.

Google Pixel has (had?) the “active edge” where squeezing the sides of the device activated functions. Perhaps these keys could be worked into squeeze points on the sides of a smartphone. If the edge could sense your fingers touching the edge, it could determine which finger initiated a squeeze. Not sure the device balance is quite right to handle such a function but maybe it can be modified for smartphones in that way.

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Gary Friedman designed a self-contained system based on the Memowriter and did a report on it while at NASA that was covered in their monthly journal which is how I learned about this decades ago. You can see how he developed the idea at http://friedmanarchives.com/dataegg/

I’ve considered making one with a Bluetooth link for my Android phone - could be fun!

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There was also a gizmo called the Quinkey, which was basically a Microwriter chording keyboard with the guts taken out. Instead of using it standalone, you connected it to a BBC Micro as an alternative keyboard.

I was working at a school for kids with learning difficulties (mostly dyslexia) at the time it came out, and was asked to test the Quinkey to see if the kids would find it easier to work with than a QWERTY keyboard. So I learned the basics over a weekend, and then tried it out with some of the kids (10-12 years old). We ended up not adopting it – the conclusion was that it wasn’t significantly easier for them than a regular keyboard – but both I and the kids found chording fairly easy to learn. I’ve no doubt that most people could learn to use it effectively in fairly short order.

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found an ios app for it. does input as full screen, so you have to copy/paste it out

also a web app version where you can try it out first

http://torty.org.uk/s/

[edit] i’d be all for trying out chorded typing, but how does arrow key navigation work? i don’t think i could live without a 10key by its side

No memory of this device, but I feel obliged to point out that the tag verbiage is incorrect; it omits the letter “s” by using “jumped” instead of “jumps.”

I wonder what folks will think of these things when neural implants are routine?

Anything that gets around the current limitations in technology in clever ways gets my respect.

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Oh wow! A Boing Boing post on my first “computer”. I bought mine in 1979 and still have it - just for the fond memories it created. I think I could still type out most of the letters if I put my mind to it.

Would I want a modern version? Nah. Please, peeps, just keep working on improving voice recognition.