It there’s one thing that has stood the test of time while being continually confronted by challenger after challenger, it’s the QWERTY keyboard. A quick look at some of the many keyboards we've covered in the past reveals just how competitive this area is, and the number of options has exploded with the advent of the onscreen virtual keyboard. The latest challenger comes from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Informatics and is aimed at speeding up thumb-centric typing on mobile touchscreen devices.

Called KALQ, the layout was devised by a research team led by Antto Oulasvirta using computational optimization techniques along with a model of thumb movement to search through millions of potential layouts. The team ultimately hit upon a split layout with 16 keys on the left and 12 keys on the right. All vowels, with the exception of the Y, which can sometimes be considered a vowel, are located on the right along with G, K, L, Q and J.

The KALQ design relies on users moving both thumbs simultaneously, with one thumb moving towards its next target as the other is typing. Oulasvirta says this is something experienced typists do on physical keyboards so the team derived a predictive model of this behavior and ran it through the computational optimization algorithm so as to minimize the moving of the thumbs and to favor the alternating of sides as much as possible.

The team conducted a user study that confirmed users could type 34 percent faster after a short amount of practice with the KALQ layout than they could with a traditional QWERTY layout. They also developed error correction methods that took into account how thumbs move as well as statistical knowledge about the texts users type.

These improvements allowed users to reach 37 words per minute, which they claim is the best ever reported for two-thumb typing on touchscreen devices and significantly better than the roughly 20 words per minute regular users achieve on a split QWERTY layout.

"The legacy of QWERTY has trapped users with suboptimal text entry interfaces on mobile devices," says research team member Per Ola Kristensson. "However, before abandoning QWERTY, users rightfully demand a compelling alternative. We believe KALQ provides a large enough performance improvement to give users the incentive to switch and benefit from faster and more comfortable typing."

The team will present their findings at the CHI (Human Factors in Computing Systems) 2013 conference to be held in Paris on May 1 and plans to release KALQ as a free download for Android smartphones at the start of May.

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