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Siggraph confab spotlights keyboard

Canesta displays a computer keyboard made of light, joining other companies that have embraced the concept of such portable "projection keyboards."

SAN DIEGO--A San Jose, Calif.-based start-up has joined other companies in embracing the concept of a portable computer keyboard made of light.

Canesta will release chipsets next year that will beam a fully functional keyboard onto a flat surface, Carlo Tomasi, the company's chief technical officer, said on Tuesday at the Siggraph 2003 conference here. Siggraph bills itself as "the world's largest marketplace of computer graphics and interactive techniques."

Tomasi said Japanese giant NEC and a North American manufacturer are already working on how to incorporate the Canesta chipset into cell phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) for the late 2004-2005 time frame.

The keyboard, on display in the Emerging Technologies exhibit at Siggraph, is aimed largely at improving one of the major problems with small, portable computing devices: They're too small for fingers. Most smart phones and PDAs come with truncated keypads or tiny chiclet keyboards. Some accessory manufacturers have come out with foldable keyboards that can be used with Palm handhelds, but these haven't exactly taken the handheld market by storm.

The Canesta keyboard essentially gets rid of the hardware part of the equation. The chipset consists of three basic parts: a light source that beams a blanket of infrared energy onto a surface, a sensor that tracks finger movements, and a pattern projector that displays an image of a QWERTY keyboard in red.

The sensor, the key part of the equation, pinpoints where the light is reflected. It then transmits data about where reflective surfaces (the back of your fingers) move and stop. The processor then translates this into keystrokes.

At least two other companies--Allison Park, Pa.-based Virtual Devices and Israel's Developer VKB, have announced "projection keyboards" of the kind Canesta is displaying. Another company, Sweden's Senseboard Technologies, has developed a virtual keyboard that tracks finger movements by way of plastic devices worn on the hands.

Like voice-recognition systems, the Canesta keyboard takes some energy to master. Users mostly have to be careful to make deliberate movements and to keep the typing area free of clutter.

"In about five to 10 minutes most people get the hang of it," Tomasi said.

Canesta is also looking at other ways to implement its technology. Similar light-and-sensor systems could be used to warn drivers about cars in their "blind spot" or objects approaching from the side.