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June 18, 2013
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard

All these techy possibilities notwithstanding, please don’t use any keyboard that requires you to take your eyes off the road while you’re driving

The day-to-day practice of law enforcement traditionally required officers to keep at least two writing instruments on their person at all times, lest one go belly-up. 

My former police employer issued every officer a box of 12 soft-point Pentel pens each year (we had to sign for them), and once you used those up, you were on your own. 

Mine usually lasted about three weeks. High-tech meant using a manual typewriter. 

Traditional “QWERTY” Keyboard
Today, nearly all information is recorded via a traditional “QWERTY” keyboard. Named for the first row of letters along the top, this is the one some people learned to touch-type with, while the rest of us make do with the hunt-and-peck method. 

Smaller devices like smartphones typically use some version of the QWERTY keyboard, if only because that’s the arrangement everyone knows. There are some alternatives on the market (or in the pipeline), although all of them involve a learning curve. 

If you would like to try to learn to touch-type with one hand, you should give the FrogPad a try. The FrogPad is a keypad a bit smaller than 6x4 inches and can produce almost all of the characters available on a standard QWERTY keyboard, even though it has only 22 keys. 

The characters are produced through the use of “chords” like with a guitar. Some characters are output via a single keypress, but others require one or two other keys to be held down while the target key is pressed, similar to the way one uses the Shift, Alt or Control keys on a QWERTY keyboard. 

I tried to learn to use a FrogPad a few years back, when I had a job that required a lot of driving and I thought I could write while on the road (in retrospect, this was not a good idea). I gave up on it. It’s a doable thing, but it requires more tenacity than I had at the time. Different models of the FrogPad connect to your device via Bluetooth or USB, and there are tutorial files available to play on the web or download for offline use. 

Glove, Keyboard, and Clumsy Acronym
Another possibility with a similar theme is the Gauntlet Keyboard, produced by senior engineering students at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. 

The Gauntlet Keyboard is a glove with touch-sensitive “keys” sewn onto the fingers. Users input characters by touching the thumb to the portion of the appropriate finger assigned to that character. 

While the glove/gauntlet association is enough to explain it, the word is actually an acronym that translates to Generally Accessible Universal Nomadic Tactile Low-power Electronic Typist. I’ll bet it took them almost as long to come up with that as it did to invent the device. 

The Gauntlet Keyboard was announced last October. The university is looking for a partner to help manufacture and market the device. 

The Incredible Shrinking Gadget 
Finally, there is a possible solution for the incredible shrinking gadget. Phones, and even smartphones, are getting close to small enough to build into a wristwatch, but then there would be the problem of how to operate them. We’re dependent on keys large enough to identify and press without hitting the ones around them.

AutoCorrect and Predictive Text can help only so much with this. 

The Zoomboard is a software application developed for platforms like the Sony SmartWatch that displays the full QWERTY keyboard on the tiny display, then zooms in in one to three steps to bring up the key you want to press and make it large enough to hit. 

Watching this in use seems a little tedious (there is a demo video on the website), but the difficulty might be outweighed by having all your smartphone functions resident on a large wristwatch. Effectively, the SmartWatch as designed serves a remote display for a Bluetooth-linked smartphone carried in a pocket, but it still has possibilities. Tests run by the designer indicate that people can achieve ten words per minute output with practice. 

All these techy possibilities notwithstanding, please don’t use any keyboard that requires you to take your eyes off the road while you’re driving. Cops tend to think they can get away with tasks that non-cop drivers get ticket for doing, including texting while driving. 

We still lose about half the LODDs to vehicle incidents, and half of those are single-car accidents where someone got outside of the envelope. 

Wait until you’re stopped to use the keyboard. 

Please. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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