From swipes to pinches to whole-body gestures, every new device seems to bring new ways to enter information. Here's an idea researchers think can replace keyboard shortcuts, such as Cntl+C for copying text. Computer scientists at the Université Paris-Sud in France wrote a program that lets users tap Morse code-like rhythms onto a laptop's touchpad, and showed people remembered rhythmic sequences as well as keyboard shortcuts. They'll present their research May 8 at the Association for Computing Machinery's computer interaction conference in Austin, Texas, where they'll receive a best paper award.
Rhythmic taps on a smartphone could speed-dial a number or add a number to the contact list, the scientists wrote in their paper. On an e-reader, people could use taps to navigate the text. On a tablet, taps could switch modes in an app. People might even tap their feet to control their devices — the authors pointed out a paper, published in 2010, that demonstrated devices can sense people's foot-taps. A rhythmic, tapping future might not be too hard to engineer, either. Mobile devices today are already equipped with all the sensors they need to detect rhythms, the researchers wrote.
To test if it's possible for a computer to recognize people playing rhythms, the researchers wrote a program to do just that. Then they came up with 30 rhythmic sequences that included long and short pauses and long, short and instant taps (An instant tap is very short, like a mouse click). They tried to match the speed of the sequences to a speed that's popular in modern music and that matches a common human walking speed, which they hoped users would find intuitive.
They tested the computer program on 12 volunteers, five of whom had never played music. The volunteers could reproduce the rhythmic sequences in a way the computer could recognize 94 percent of the time.
Then the research team recruited a new crop of volunteers to test whether rhythmic patterns or keyboard shortcuts were easier to remember. After a training period, the volunteers had to reproduce either keyboard shortcuts or tapping sequences to match small pictures — bananas, purple sneakers, a video camera — the researchers showed on-screen. The keyboard shortcuts didn't correspond to the pictures' names in any way. Cntl+Y was for the banana, for example, and Shift+W was for a bike.
The researchers found that people could recall both rhythm and keyboard shortcuts at about the same rate, 93 percent. Afterward, nine of the volunteers said preferred the rhythmic taps, while three preferred keyboard shortcuts and two didn't have any preference. Most people thought it was fun to tap rhythms. They also said they liked they didn't have to look at the keyboard to find the right keys.
Perhaps the next generation of smartphones, tablets and laptops will let people create their own rhythmic shortcuts. May we suggest S.O.S. to call up a help menu — or maybe call home?