While most people prefer using physical keyboards and only tolerate virtual keyboards on their mobile devices for the sake of portability, onscreen keyboards do potentially offer a flexibility that can't be matched by physical keyboards. It's this flexibility that IBM is looking to take advantage of with the company recently filing a U.S. patent application for a morphing touchscreen keyboard interface that would automatically resize, reshape and reposition keys based on a user's typing style.

While we've seen a number of attempts to take advantage of the capability of touchscreens to place the onscreen keyboard anywhere and in any configuration, such as the LiquidKeyboard and Microsoft's multi touch keyboard patent, but the only non-standard layout that's really gained any traction is the split keyboard that splits the keyboard in half and places each half on either side of the display. However, even these retain the familiar QWERTY layout and consistent key size.

IBM proposes a different system that would alter the size, shape and location of keys to suit an individual's physical anatomy, such as finger size, length and range of motion. The user would first carry out a series of calibration exercises and the system would generate a touch keyboard interface based on the input. After the initial setup, the system would also continue to monitor keyboard usage patterns over time and using averages, make changes to key shape, size and position accordingly.

Judging by an illustration in the IBM patent application we shouldn't expect massive changes, such as giant "A" and "E" keys looming over "Q" and "Z" keys the size of a pinhead. Rather the changes would look to be fairly subtle with some keys slightly wider than normal, and others around two-thirds their regular size. Likewise, the repositioning would only be a refinement rather than a wholesale reordering, with the illustration showing keys at the edge of the keyboard slightly lower than normal and those in the middle slightly raised, making it easier for a single hand to reach the outlying keys.

On the face of it, an onscreen keyboard that adapts to the user seems a better idea than the one-size-fits-all onscreen keyboards currently found on most mobile devices that the user is forced to adapt to. But they still don't address the single biggest shortfall of onscreen keyboards when compared to their physical counterparts - the tactile feedback of a physical key press.

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