Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Flying Through Words

It's rare that I encounter something in the computing world so novel, so fascinating, and so utterly different—so unlike anything I've thought of myself—that it makes me stop and rethink what I know and do. I recently came across something along these lines: Dasher, a text-entry tool, which I found out about from Spike.

It turns out I'm just late to the party. Several of my colleagues have heard of it, and Kathi even tried it last year as a substitute to typing, but she found it painful with a mouse. I, on the other hand, played with it on my OQO (a tablet PC), and it was the most fun I've had in a while.

The Dasher page contains a link to a Google Video. I figured the talk would be either just the math (which would have been interesting enough) or...or what? Demos for an hour?

It's actually wonderful. The metaphors are, at the very least, tantalizing. Every time I thought there would be no more content, there was yet another new idea. (At minute 33 I started to clap.) There's much fascinating material at the end, too, from translation interfaces to multi-modal inputs (which I've been especially pondering given the need for such things in cell phones).

It's interesting that the rise of mobile computing has led to tools that can actually help the long-neglected physically-impaired. This is just enlightened self-interest at work: on today's mobile computers, we're all “physically-impaired”.

I have some complaints with Dasher:

  • Punctuation is difficult (what is the natural order for punctuation?).
  • It uses the shorter edge of my screen (as Jacob Baskin pointed out, perhaps it's because people write English rightwards rather than downwards).
  • It uses rectangles rather than pie-wedges (Spike claimed some cognitive reason, but I suspect it's just to simplify implementation).
  • Worst of all, it violates its own cardinal axiom, Fitt's Law. Suppose you have two frequent next letters, say p and r. Then these appear in large boxes, and q in an appropriately small one. The boxes are, unfortunately, right-aligned (with the edge of the screen), so you have to navigate this tiny channel between the Scylla of p and Charybdis of r as you hunt for the miniscule q over at screen's edge.

But enough bickering. I certainly will not be using handwriting recognition on my tablet ever again, except in extreme circumstances. And one nice side-effect: Dasher seems to consume far less power than the handwriting recognizer, which is a boon on a lightweight mobile platform.


Tom Hoffman said...

I almost mentioned Dasher when we were discussing the lack of free text recognition software while having hot dogs AT SPIKES!

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

The “Spike's” that Tom refers to is a hot dog joint.