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Microsoft scientists pushing keyboard into the past

If you are going to use a cell phone to send e-mail, something has to be done about the keyboard. Photos: Rethinking the keyboard

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--How can you find information about Condoleezza Rice on the Internet? Type in "2*#7423".

That is if you have a copy of a prototype program from Microsoft Research currently named The Wild Thing. The application, for cell phones and handhelds, essentially lets consumers conduct queries with abbreviations and truncated spellings of words, said its developer Bo Thiesson.

The query TR SF turns up Thai restaurants in San Francisco, complete with search results grouped under a header for local Thai restaurants. It also turns up Tower Records and The Stinking Rose, a local restaurant, but punching in those four letters took less time on a handheld keyboard that the full formal query on a cell phone keypad.

Photo: Rethinking the keyboard

The Condi Rice query was conducted by using the telenumeric pad on the phone, where numbers represent three sequential letters (i.e. 2 equals A, B or C while 3 is D, E or F etc.) and punctuation marks represent word spaces or other grammatical rules. The query turned up grouped search results for Brown Rice, Anne Rice and Cellular Shades, but the Condi Rice group of results was listed first.

"The more popular an item is, the less letters I can get away with," he said. The application, he hopes, will be included in phones within a year. The company is currently in talks with device makers and carriers.

Cell phones are one of the dominant themes of the Microsoft Research road show, a traveling exhibition of technologies and prototypes from its labs. Naturally, one of the primary concerns is how to make it easier to input data or navigate the Web with a device that can't accommodate a traditional keyboard.

Xnav is another stab at the problem. It is a software interface where users input letters through sweeping motions and gestures. The letters (see photo) are arranged around the perimeter of a square screen divided into 10 blocks. To spell an "h" a user starts in the neutral space (the center, or block No. 5), sweeps his or her finger or a stylus to block No. 3 (for letters g, h, i, j and k) and then to block No. 2 (because h is the second letter in previously selected group No. 3). Double-clutching and hovering over certain spaces will activate the shift key and give access to punctuation marks.

"It depends on age. Millenniums (kids aged 10 to 21) are wicked fast," said John SanGiovanni, a Microsoft engineer who is developing the program in conjunction with researchers at NYU. "The goal is to get to 45 words per minute. Right now, I'm at just south of 30."

IBM has developed a similar prototype called Shark, while Hewlett-Packard has created one for the Indian market that accommodates Hindi and other languages.

Microsoft also showed off Pinpoint, an application that lets one person track another person's geographical whereabouts with GPS or triangulation with Wi-Fi or cellular. With Pinpoint, for instance, parents can tell if their kids have made it to the movies, or gone to a part of town they aren't supposed to go to. If you are running late for a dinner party, the system sends your geographic location to the host.

"It is all based on permission," said Rick Hughes, who is developing the system. Trials will begin soon. As far as accuracy goes, GPS is tough to beat, he said. Nonetheless, because GPS doesn't track indoors, Pinpoint will look at data from Wi-Fi or cellular.

Of the two, Wi-Fi triangulation works better. A cellular signal emanating from one spot will often rapidly switch from transmitting from one tower to another, which makes it look like the person is moving, he said.