What is gesture typing? The time-saving texting technique we might soon all be using

Also known as swiping or gliding, gesture typing is becoming more common – but could it make keyboards obsolete?

Swiping takes advantage of muscle memory. Courtesy TouchType
Swiping takes advantage of muscle memory. Courtesy TouchType

About two years ago, a world speed record for texting was set in the UAE by Abdul Basit from Pakistan, who typed the following in 17.5 seconds flat: “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human.”

To achieve this, Basit used a technique called gesture typing, also known as swiping or gliding.

Instead of prodding at letters on the screen, he swiped between letters with a finger, lifting only between each word.

This feature has been available on smartphones through third-party apps since 2010, and on Android phones since 2016.

Last week, Apple announced that it was finally joining the party. Its version, called QuickPath, will be incorporated into system software for iPhones and iPads from September.

But if this really is the quickest way of getting information into our phones, why are so many of us still jabbing away at on-screen keyboards using our fingers and thumbs?

Human predictability

The ghost of Qwerty hovers over anyone using the Roman alphabet on a smartphone.

Invented in the 1860s by American newspaper editor Christopher Sholes, the keyboard layout was designed to avoid the mechanical levers of the typewriter getting jammed during operation.

Letters that frequently appear together were deliberately placed on opposite sides of the keyboard.

“By sheer coincidence, this turned out reasonably well for typing on a laptop, and also using your thumbs on a smartphone – left, right, left, right. But you can make it better,” says Per Ola Kristensson, an associate professor at Cambridge University and co-inventor of gesture typing.

The history of developing input systems for mobile devices has been mainly about keeping Qwerty intact while trying to make it less annoying to use.

The first Android phone, the G1, came with a slide-out Qwerty keyboard, perhaps as a challenge to Apple, which had launched the first iPhone with a virtual keyboard only.

But virtual keyboards became the norm and while we made repeated attempts to hit the right keys, software was working hard behind the scenes to deduce what we were trying to type.

That wasn’t too difficult, Kristensson says.

“Humans are incredibly predictable when it comes to typing,” he says. “Fifty per cent of the words we type consist of the 200 most frequently used words in English.

"In fact, 6 per cent of what we type is the word ‘the’, and 3 per cent is the word ‘and’. So you can capture the probabilities of one word following another fairly easily.”

Computers have to make allowances for our clumsy use of incredibly tiny virtual keyboards, an outcome that could hardly be described as elegant.

So over the past decade, scientists have explored various ways to improve virtual typing by designing imaginative layouts with names such as Kalq and Wrio – but few of us can be bothered to adjust our well-established Qwerty habits.

“It takes about 40 hours of dedicated practice – not just typing, dedicated practice – to learn a new system,” says Kristensson, who worked on Kalq.

“It was optimised for two-thumb typing and it was faster than Qwerty, but we put it on the App Store for free and look, nobody’s using it. So the market has spoken.”

How gesture typing works

Consumer stubbornness left scientists with a difficult challenge: to come up with a faster text-input system that worked in a similar way and could be learnt within a minute or so.

The only system to tick these boxes is gesture typing, and its incorporation into Android and iOS is a confirmation of Kristensson’s hunches back in 2002, when he devised the system with his colleague, Shumin Zhai.

“When you’re a novice user you type using ‘hunt and pick’," he says. "So if you want to write the word ‘the’, you find the T key, tap it, go to the H, then go to the E.

"But if you turn that into a sliding motion and do it enough times, that gesture sticks in your motor memory.

"It becomes automatic and involuntary, and by repeatedly doing that single motion for a single word you become a shorthand expert.”

Close up of friends texting with cell phones on a table. Getty Images
Gone might be the days of hunting and pecking while typing. Getty

In other words, gesture typing gives each word its own unique squiggle that we learn almost by accident.

We don’t use smartphones in the way we once used typewriters. We’re often holding them at awkward angles, in unusual places, often standing up and frequently while carrying other items, so the way gesture typing allows us to use a single finger has been a boon.

But the nature of our communication is changing in a way that makes us type less.

What is the future of typing?

The ever-growing use of emojis, stickers and Gifs to express ideas or convey emotions is partly because it has been so inconvenient to spell things out letter by letter.

Emojis and their garish cousins are often criticised for dumbing down modern communication but the exasperating nature of virtual keyboards has to shoulder some of the blame.

When you write a text, an email or a document, what you’re doing is designing text. You look at it, you revise it, you evolve it. Speech is terrible at that, because it’s linear. Yes, you can certainly input text that way, but how do you edit it?

Per Ola Kristensson

Could such keyboards ever disappear altogether? The recent and vast improvement in voice-recognition technology has led some to wonder if our frustrated attempts to key in words could be replaced by us shouting them at our devices instead.

Kristensson is doubtful, saying that maintaining personal privacy makes it impossible to say out loud everything that you might type into your phone.

“But also, when you write a text, an email or a document, what you’re doing is designing text," he says. "You look at it, you revise it, you evolve it.

"Speech is terrible at that because it’s linear. Yes, you can certainly input text that way but how do you edit it?”

It seems that the nuance and delicacy that digital communication sometimes demands will always need some kind of keyboard to fall back on, whether we’re prodding, swiping or thumbing.

“Just like the Roman alphabet, I have a feeling that in 1,000 years we’ll still be trying to deal with Qwerty somehow,” Kristensson says.

Updated: June 17, 2019 02:30 AM


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