Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Half-QWERTY: The sound of one hand typing

You’ve finally managed to get a job. It’s your first day at work and you’ve got a computer staring back at you on your new desk. But due to a thresher accident when you were a kid (or a stroke, or carpal-tunnel syndrome, or a birth defect) you’ve only got one hand to type with. Short of using your nose to press the keys, what do you do?

There are ways to type one-handed, including a relatively new technique that sounds crazier than it is. Half-QWERTY, a software product from Toronto inventor Edgar Matias, lets you type all the letters and numbers on a computer keyboard with one hand. You place your hand where it would normally reside if you were a two-handed typist; that takes care of half the keyboard. To type the keys on the other side, you hold the spacebar and press the mirror-image key. To get a p, press space+q; to get a j, press space+f. Press and release the spacebar and you get a space character, as always; hold it down and nothing happens, to prevent you from accidentally inserting a whole line of spaces.

Unlike many purported "solutions" to typing problems, Half-QWERTY has actually been tested – at the University of Toronto Input Research Group (with which Matias is affiliated). After about ten hours of practice, most test subjects were typing with one hand at over 50% of their two-handed typing speeds; one subject hit 88% of her two-handed rate. Errors, however, were about twice as frequent as in two-handed typing.

OK, so the system works. Naturally, though, there are problems: The prosaic name (Matias is trying to dream up something snappier) and the fact that Half-QWERTY is not entirely transparent. That is, the best accessible products work just fine for nondisabled users too, and ideally Half-QWERTY would be part of "system software" on every computer and would be active all the time; two-handed typists would never notice it, while one-handers could just sit down and type away. In practice, Half-QWERTY often transposes space characters and an adjacent character in fast two-hand typing, making it a bit of a nuisance. The system assumes you already know how to type, so a user who can’t touch-type might have a tougher time getting the hang of it. And if you’re using your left hand, the task of typing the apostrophe, question mark, and other characters on the far right of the keyboard is tricky since they don’t have mirror images on the left. This is an even bigger deal in Germany and Scandinavia where punctuation and letters of the alphabet (Ä, Å, Æ, etc.) are on the right-hand side. (Half-QWERTY presently has you reach over and type them directly, but Matias will reconfigure that function to individual specifications.)

For the two-handed majority, Half-QWERTY does have a noteworthy application: Making "palmtop" computers like the Casio Boss practical for more than dividing restaurant checks accurately and keeping track of your lovers’ phone numbers. A palmtop usually has a tiny joke-of-a-keyboard that forces you to hunt an peck; using Half-QWERTY, though, a manufacturer could install full-size keys in half a standard layout. You could then type at higher speeds than you would ever attain through poking out one letter at a time on a typical palmtop’s Munchkin keyboard. (Matias is developing his own palmtop computer.)

[Originally published 1993 ¶ Updated here 2008.01.13]

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