Monday, February 6, 2012
iStenopad Overlay: A Bust
Ever since iStenopad joined Plover in the free as in beer (though not as in speech) steno software ranks, I've been wanting to try it. Not because I really contemplated buying an iPad to use it with myself, but because I loved the idea of a simple overlay that could turn a touchscreen into a steno machine, and I was hoping that if it was really plausible, we could port Plover to Android and open up steno to a whole new sector of tablet owners. Sadly, it's too good to be true. It took me until now to try the app because the demo iPads you see at most electronics stores don't allow downloads from the App Store. But the computer store at the university I'm working for this semester had some unlocked iPads connected to WiFi, so I was finally able to download the app and give it a try. First I tried without the overlay. It wasn't promising. The lack of haptic feedback meant that even when I looked at my fingers, they'd tend to drift around and hit the wrong keys while missing the right ones. It was very slow, very inaccurate, and very frustrating. So I sent off for the silicone overlay ($45 plus $10 shipping), hoping that would give me enough haptic feedback to stay aligned with the keys. This morning I brought it to the computer store and spent about an hour trying to write on the iPad, with pretty dismal results. Not only were the keys still too mushy to keep my fingers from drifting off their marks, but the overlay itself kept sliding all over the place, and I wasn't able to get it to stick no matter how much I smoothed it down. I didn't try actually taping it to the iPad (since it wasn't my iPad), but even if I had, I'm not sure it would have mattered much. Unfortunately I think the keys are too close together to allow the necessary margin of error you need when dealing with such a small amount of physical feedback. If the keys had been firmer and more direct, I think I would have been able to hit my targets better, and I would have been able to tell by touch when the keys were registering and when they weren't. As it is, the only way I was able to tell which keys had been hit was by reading the display; I couldn't feel the difference between a hit or a miss based on feedback from the overlay. This is discouraging, because it makes me think that getting Plover to a mobile app won't be as simple as I had hoped. There are two things that might help to solve the problem, though. One would be using a tablet with a bigger footprint than the iPad, which would allow more separation between the keys and more margin for error. That's not completely ideal, though, because the bigger a tablet is, the less convenient it is to schlep around. Another option would be to wait until tablets with built-in locational haptics came on the market; if they buzzed just in the area underneath your finger, you wouldn't need the overlay to know where you're supposed to be pressing, or if a key has registered. A third option would be to use one's own body for haptic feedback. I experimented with wrapping the silicone overlay around my thigh and trying to write in steno without looking at the keys. It was far more successful; my brain's locational map of my leg kept my fingers from drifting around the way they did when they were touching an inanimate surface. If we could get some kind of flexible multitouch sensors going, a silicone overlay might do very nicely. But flexible multitouch panels are still pretty rare and expensive. Still, one day I'm hoping they'll be the answer to my mobile steno daydreams. In summary, the iStenopad is not anywhere close to a workable solution, and I'm kind of shocked that they're apparently selling expensive subscriptions to stenographers who want to use their iPads with their commercial steno software. I've heard from a lot of professional stenographers who tried iStenopad and then discarded it as too inaccurate and unwieldy, but I haven't heard of anyone who actually likes it enough to pay for the subscription. If you know of any, send them my way; I'd like to ask them some questions. Maybe I'm missing something. More likely, though, I think the promise of touchscreen steno has eclipsed the reality. I hope that won't always be the case, but for now it's back to the drawing board.