Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Steno machines on the cheap

I bet you that there's plenty of people who are interested in tripling their typing speed but don't intend to make a career out of it. Steno could be of great benefit to them, but steno machines cost big bucks. Right now you can get ugly, bulky, ancient student machines for about $700 at the cheapest, and they have none of the ergonomic benefits of a machine like a Gemini ($1,000) or a Revolution Grand like I've got ($2,400), or even a Lightspeed ($2,000). Incidentally, did you know that the technology used in the Apple iTouch was purchased from a company that had been using it to make low-cost steno machines? Apple put a stop to that, of course, and we've been waiting for an affordable touch-based machine ever since. Story here and here.

I have high hopes for the MSI computer I posted about below, but the video showed only two channels of multitouch. That might be the case only for the prototype; if it's that way in the final version as well, we'll just have to keep on waiting. Then, of course, there's the question of how the haptics will work even if the multitouch is fully functional. Will they be laggy? Insufficiently well delineated? So well delineated it's impossible to touch two keys with one finger? Who knows? Maybe a keypad overlay system, similar to the LightSpeed's, can work where haptics don't; it's something to consider.

But until our dual-screen fully multitouch magic bullet comes along, what solution is there for people who don't want to drop a minimum of a grand on some bit of tech that they're not sure they'll ever use? There's a cheap ($60) qwerty keyboard from Microsoft that can supposedly recognize up to 26 keypresses at once. How possible would it be to strip the keys off and use the key-recognition circuitry with a new steno-based layout? I know very little about hardware hacking, but my Python tutor has done a fair bit of it, so I intend to bring this up to him once we're a bit further along in Plover's development. My instinct is that it will probably be possible to rig up something that works but that it'll be trickier to come up with something that's both comfortable and reliable. I'm holding out hope for the dual-screen solution because that makes it as easy as pressing a key to switch between qwerty and steno layouts, which seems pedagogically ideal. But if we could really rig up working steno machines out of $60 keyboards plus some minor parts and labor customization -- maybe even make it into a kit for hobbyists to assemble themselves -- it might give people a low-risk incentive to pick one up and play around with it.


Sonja said...

One problem with Qwerty layouts is that the keys don't line up into perfect columns the way they do on steno writers.

Mirabai Knight said...

Very true, but the keypads help to minimize that effect if you cut them a little long and place them a little off-center. It's actually nowhere near as bad as I expected. I wouldn't like to try it without the keypads, but with the keypads I think it's something I might get used to after a little time with it.

ADmin said...
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