These Tiny Keyboards Could Reinvent The Smartwatch Interface

Smartwatches need a seamless way to input text. Believe it or not, one of these tiny keyboards might hold the answer.

Of all the ways to input text into a smartwatch, holding it up and saying, "Siri, text my wife 'we ran out of mayo'" probably isn't the most elegant. If these new wearable devices are going to catch on, they need a more seamless interface. Thankfully, developers are already taking a crack at the problem.

Minuum is a smartphone keyboard developer that's already thinking about the future of wearable interfaces. The startup recently showed off a smartwatch keyboard prototype in a blog post detailing its predictive text algorithm. If designed properly, Minuum says, a mini-keyboard like this could work well on even the smallest of screens.

Minuum simplifies the traditional QWERTY layout by smashing it down to about the third the size a typical soft keyboard requires. Doing this on a smartwatch, for example, leaves more room for other on-screen elements.

How does Minuum’s flat keyboard work? It uses a spatial and language models to evaluate words based on two factors. The spatial model analyzes the accuracy of users' typing and combines that with the likelihood of word choice in a specific language. The company compares using the keyboard to Google’s instant search, anticipating what someone will type next. The post breaks down the two models in some depth, including interactive charts for different word scenarios.

Fleksy is another keyboard that's been demonstrated on smartwatches, most notably on Samsung’s Galaxy Gear at this year’s CES. Unlike Minuum, Fleksy takes up a healthy amount of screen real estate, giving it an extra barrier to overcome. Still, not having to look at the screen (thanks to dead-on autocomplete) is a key feature for a watch. Fleksy has also been shown off on Leap Motion's consumer grade motion controller.

If you're itching to see what the future of input might look like, all of these alternative keyboards are available to try on Android, but not widely so on iOS. Third-party keyboards have never been permitted system wide, but the restrictions are easing with iOS 7 as individual apps can implement different keyboard choices. Fleksy first showed up in the text editing app Wordbox, but has slowly been creeping into other apps as well. Of these third-party alternative keyboards, some of the oldest options remain the most popular. Swype and SwiftKey, which let users drag their finger from letter to letter instead of actually tapping out a word, are widely beloved.

Rumors of SwiftKey broaching iOS through a dedicated note taking app have recently come about from leaked screen shots of such an app. This would be one more taste of a keyboard alternative for iOS users to try as Apple prepares some sort of wearable device. If any such iWatch were to accept input versus strictly providing notifications, the chances of a full fledged traditional software keyboard seem highly unlikely. More likely, these third-party keyboards give at least some insight into the future of input on wearable devices.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Scoble]