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Pressure-sensitive keyboard? Let the fun begin

Microsoft sent prototypes of pressure-sensitive keyboards to 40 student teams, which had four weeks to hack and innovate. The result? Coolness.

Winners of the student contest nabbed the above trophy, plus a $2,000 prize, bragging rights, and special consideration for a spot at Siggraph's 2010's Emerging Technology demos. Flickr user psychopsyclist

I can tell you my computer password, but unless you type it in exactly the way I do, you won't be allowed entry. That's the idea behind Safelock, one of the just-announced winning entries in the UIST 2009 Student Innovation Competition, a Microsoft-sponsored contest aimed at inspiring keyboard innovation. About a month ago, the company sent out prototypes of pressure-sensitive keyboards to 40 international teams, which had four weeks to cobble together their creations. Here are just a few of the cool ideas they came up with:

First place, most useful: Safelock
Safelock, by Jeff Allen and John Howard of Southern Methodist University, biometrically authenticates a user with just eight characters entered. The key (forgive the pun) is that the user has to enter that relatively short password just right. To create a machine-learning algorithm that discovers the unique way each person types, the team measured four keystroke attributes: flight time (the interval between each keystroke); hold time (the amount of time the key was held); maximum pressure; and a curve fit to the pressure over time as a user pressed each key.

The team conducted extensive tests of their system and say it's "extremely robust." Says Howard: "99.4 percent of the time, if you're not me, you're not able to log into my account."

First place, most creative: Hidden Forces
This innovation lets users control multiple cursors by waving magnets above the keyboard but not touching it. A four-person team from Carnegie Mellon University accomplished this by placing one small magnet underneath each of the keyboard keys, with the north side facing up.

Julia Schwarz, Brian Lim, Stephen Oney, and Kevin Huang then used a larger magnet (north side facing down) as a cursor. The larger magnet repelled nearby magnets, pushing them against the pressure-sensitive pads and allowing the computer to know where the magnet was located above the keyboard. The innovators were able to control multiple cursors with this technique, turning the keyboard into a multipoint, in-air interaction device.

Second place, best implementation: BallMeR
A team from Germany's Aachen University rolled out BallMeR, a competitive soccer game played by two people at a single keyboard. The goal is to kick the ball into the opponent's goal by deforming the ground itself.

To make their virtual ground morphable, Malte Weiss, Gero Herkenrath, and Jonathan Diehl spacially mapped the Microsoft keyboard to the playing field, so if you push a key, a hill appears at the corresponding position on the green. The harder you push, the bigger the hill gets, creating a greater impulse to shoot the ball away. As you can see from the video below, the keys take a bit of a beating during BallMeR (note the appropriately creative title).

Other winners include Heelblazers, a method for typing with feet, and UTea Time, an inputting technology for people with disabled fingers. Read more about the winners here.