Making texting while driving 'safe'

DAVID ELLERY
Last updated 15:42 12/12/2012
Second Lieutenant James Edge-Williams
Fairfax

SAFETY FIRST: Australian Second Lieutenant James Edge-Williams with his early stage 'chorded keyboard' design.

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Helicopters and motorcycles have inspired Australian Army Second Lieutenant James Edge-Williams to come up with a chorded keyboard prototype that may make safe texting while driving a possibility.

The 32-year-old from Rockhampton, Queensland, is just wrapping up the fourth year of an engineering degree at the Australian Defence Academy.

An avid motorbike rider, he is the owner of a Honda Super Sports CBR 600 RR that he has spun out to 240km/h on the race track.

He sees motorbikes as an obvious application for a one-handed keyboard that does not require the user to look at a screen. Helicopters, which are flown on a central pitch control lever known as a "collective" are another.

"Chorded" technology works on the same principle as a musician who uses a combination of fingers to play a specific chord on a piano or a flute.

The device, which relies on tactile feedback to the operator to let them known they have keyed the correct combination of buttons to create the right letter, could also be fitted to the steering wheel of a motor car.

Lieutenant Edge-Williams said there was also potential to create communications aids for the handicapped, including blind people and those with limited use of their hands and fingers.

This is a case of technology having come a full circle. The first "chorded" keyboards or devices where letters were generated using multiple key combinations were braille typewriters invented in the 19th century.

Lieutenant Edge-Williams's prototype offers tactile feedback, can be connected to a wide range of existing electronic devices and has the potential to incorporate Blue Tooth connectivity.

He said while chorded keyboard apps for smart phones were available as internet downloads their functionality was limited.

"Touchscreen apps offer no tactile feedback," he said. "Without looking you can't tell where your fingers are."

The Queenslander, who is heading back north at the end of the year, said he had always been interested in IT and computing.

Shortly after switching from the Army Reserves to the regulars he was offered the chance to do simulation work on the Tiger ARH helicopter.

"Helicopter pilots currently type messages with gloved fingers on keypads beside their chairs," he said. "If we installed a chorded keyboard they would never have to take their hands off the control or look away to type a message."

Dr Sean O'Byrne, Lieutenant Edge-Williams' honours supervisor at the University of NSW's Canberra School of Engineering and Information, jokes that he got the work rolling because he wanted a chorded keyboard of his own.

"We're not trying to commercialise this," he said. "We want to make the technology open source and allow people to design their own prototypes according to their needs."

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- Canberra Times

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