XO-2's Virtual Keyboard: Back to the Future?

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XO-2 vs Atari 400This week our site has been abuzz with comments about OLPC's next generation laptop, the XO-2. No prototype of the XO-2 has been built yet, and the machines aren't scheduled to ship until 2010, but that hasn't stopped readers from expressing strong opinions about the XO-2's keyboard, or lack thereof.

Replacing a physical keyboard with a touchscreen virtual keypad (à la the iPhone) is a bold move on OLPC's part, but is it good for everyday use?

RoMania commented:

The fact that the keyboard is missing it’s a big problem. Trust me I prefer to type on a real keyboard rather than on a touch screen. [sic]

Flatus said:

Touchscreens that you press may work for an ATM machine, where you’re only doing a few presses while looking at the screen.

A user named Jason was blunt in comparing the XO-2's keyboard to one from the late 70s/early 80s:

The future is typing on an Atari 400?

For those not well-versed in disco-era technology, we should say that the Atari 400 (pictured at right) was an early home PC that featured a membrane keyboard. Membrane keyboards were used in a few other early home computers but were quickly relegated to microwave-oven keypads, because typing on a flat surface is so uncomfortable. Or is it?

Chris Adams, an ergonomics consultant for NASA and About.com's ergonomics Guide, said that a touchscreen keyboard like the one found on the XO-2 is likely to cause more injuries, not because a flat surface is inherently bad but because most users don't have proper typing posture:

Most keyboard operators (as opposed to typists) rest their wrists on the desk or wrist rest (which should only be used during periods of rest, not while typing) and as such have to flex their fingers
upward (past the natural, resting finger posture) on the upstroke. This is bad on your hands. With a touch screen such as this, if you rest your wrist on the laptop (or desk) then your fingertips will rest on the screen or hover just above it. This means you will have no down stroke and only
the bad upstroke. So, if you type with a lazy posture, as most of the users of this type of device probably would, it will be worse than typing on a keyboard with a lazy posture.

When asked about typing accuracy, Adams stated that, while the XO-2 will not be "an ergonomic text entry device," the touchscreen will allow software developers to customize the key sizes and layouts for different users and different applications.

"A touchscreen allows for a lot of customization of controls that can enhance efficiency, even going so far as completely changing control methodology depending on the activity," he said.

So is the XO-2's touchscreen keyboard a taste of the future or a blast from the past? I guess it all depends on whom you ask. To quote one anonymous user, "This is an image of the future. I want one."

Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
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  • Juan Says:

    I see pictures of small fingers on a keyboard in one of the XO-2 screens, but I can not imagine adults hands typing on it. I would also like to see the keyboard expanding both screens, one hand on each screen, with the text running under the virtual keyboard. The text could be read through a virtual semitransparent keyboard. The keyboard might be as simple as just the key symbols, leaving more area to read the text behind.

  • Kiki2000 Says:

    Im not sure what to do because I kinda like the keypad but there is no good phones that actually work that have a actual keypad and a touch screen.

  • David Bogdan Says:

    If they could incorporate an accelerometer into it it would be so cool.
    I'm thinking of rotating it and using it as a book.
    Or like an ordinary pice of pape to handwrite on.Each screen the size of an A4...
    Grafic designers could just use it as a smartboard conected maybe trough bluetooth/wireless to a graphic station( those things are reeally expensive ).
    The principles of "Take your ideas anywere" apllies here I can see my self now with the XO-2 and some toilet paper for a good half an hour of bathroom wireless joy.
    Scrolling with up/down keys will be a thing of the past just like drag and drop with a mouse or keypad,
    jeesh i would love to get my hands on one of those...
    O and by the way i have an iPod Touch and sidekeyboard is preety nifty i reealy don't like the portable device keyboards out there, not even the sight of them....but I would still kill for a small thumbsized joystick on it( the touch )
    Even doe the corners on it seem too rounde I hope the buzz kickes the XO into fast production.
    ( Get Linux and Mac Os on it and windows will folow )

  • Screen Says:

    With virtual keyboard you can make many interesting things, See here: http://hot-virtual-keyboard.com/

  • Mookiemu Says:

    I want one! Why do we have to wait until 2010? Should be available now. It would blow away the eeepc in sales in no time.

    I really want one!

  • Jerrem Says:

    I think you forgot to mention OLPC stands one laptop per child (these are designed for children in third world countries)

    This is a bold and wise leep, children in third world countries dont need to be tied to our tradition of a rigid keyboard interface.

    hopefully the developers will think well outside the box with there user interface, are keyboard less user interface has huge potential and i think we are only scratching the surface of touch enabled interfaces.

    These children will grow up thinking radically differently about computers, its exciting to think of some of the electronic art they might make!

  • john Says:

    I think it looks great and i want one one i would be happy to bye a kid one so i can get on as far as the key board i,ll use my own , but want i would like to do with it is well i don't know yet maybe hack it to use it for some thing else but i would be happy to use it as a book if that all or if i could put mac osx on it that would be the ----may be apple should help them and put osx on them and then a lot more people would know apple os besides osx is the easiest os and the best

  • Don Romaniello Says:

    "So why did they cut the borders of, just to make it look childish?"

    More durable, think of an arch.

    And as far as the ergonomics of upstroke and downstroke goes, people seem to be missing the fact that the XO2 will not necessarily be used in a desk or table situation. The reason it's water resistant and the display works in full sunlight is because it's intended to be used anywhere, which does not mean anywhere with a desk or table.

  • Enelya Says:

    Wow, Chris Adams is totally wrong about more injuries caused by touchscreen. He is assuming that a user can rest his or her fingers on the touchpad. This would cause the touchpad to type letters when the user does not want to. Therefore, the only way to not unintentionally type letters is to not rest fingers on the keys. This means that there is only a downstoke and no injury causing upstroke. Now, I did a little experiment and it was easier for me to keep my hands and wrists in the recomended typing position than in a lazy position when I imagined my keyboard as a touch screen keyboard.

    Just my thoughts and opinion.

  • Florin Braescu Says:

    I wait to see when a normal USB touchscreen keyboard (normal keyboard size) will be released. It's functionality can be beyond imagination. It can replace a keboard, a mouse and a touch pad. It can display various national keyboard layouts, menus from applications aware of this keyboard type (programable with an open source toolkit), graphic diagrams, etc.

  • derek Says:

    I WANT ONE NOW!!!!!

  • jswolfe Says:

    It's a big Nintendo DS... kinda cool... I guess....

  • chayton Says:


  • chayton Says:


  • Antti76 Says:

    I don't want to wait until 2010 :( They should make normal laptops with the same idea right away.

  • Somian Says:

    Rounded Screens?
    how does it work, and what is it for? I mean, the video card renders the resolution anyway, and the panel is rectangular. So why did they cut the borders of, just to make it look childish?

  • VHMP01 Says:

    Continuing from my previous post… you could use it to control all your household electronics, even as a graphical remote to surf the web on a big screen TV, just by adding an infrared sensor to it, as an example.

    Therefore, as a “laptop per child” which is a great project, as a multiple use household device, as a great traveling laptop (picture aboard airplanes with Wi-Fi and programs like Skype and a headset), as a graphical input interface for desktops, or even in bigger dimensions as a all purpose Tablet – Laptop fusion with an external keyboard. Possibilities are endless, that is the original idea.

  • VHMP01 Says:

    You can always plug an external keyboard (even an ergonomic one).

    However, it goes further; you could plug this XO-2 to a desktop and use it as an external graphical input device for manipulating images or tons of other tasks.

    My original idea was sent to a Research Lab back in January.

  • John Says:

    I have been using the phisical keyboard for many years, an using this new touch screen would be something that takes geting used too. However, if the Iphone, Ipod touch and tablets are now using touch screens, this new laptop might be on to something. I would want the touchscreen since I wouldnt have to put up with the annoying sound of tapping keys on a keyboard.

  • saikat dutta Says:

    i guess virtual keyboard is great ,because if a user doesnt want keyboard he can remove that and use that space in more noble ways,moreover for users for which OLPC are made its better if we can give direct interaction with the content rather than having indirect interaction through a keypad.

  • IAM Says:

    There is a newly invented keyboard which is an image of the future: small but quick. http://opqrest.blog.sohu.com/82042354.html

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