Innovative Spirit

This Keyboard Cover Lets Users Actually Feel the Letters They Type

Two college students found a way have a keyboard tap into our muscle memory of the alphabet

The stretchable keyboard cover is designed to make typing truly tactile. (Joel Cruz)
smithsonian.com

For all the talk of how technology is changing education, here’s a question that doesn’t get asked much: Are kids losing touch with the alphabet?

There was a time when grade schoolers spent a whole lot of time connecting with letters—tracing, coloring, drawing them—and, in the process, building up a form of muscle memory that never forgot the quirkiness of Q’s or the balance of B’s.  

Not that all that alphabet play has been abandoned, but earlier than ever in their learning lives, young students are typing on keyboards—an experience in which every letter feels the same.

So it goes, right? 

Well, not for Will Klingner and Jeff Weinert, two recent University of Richmond graduates who saw this trend as an opportunity.  The result is Keybodo, a cover you lay over a keyboard to make typing more tactile.

Losing touch

The inventors' inspiration came when they were college sophomores, and they realized they were the only ones in their class taking notes in longhand. Everyone else was on a computer.

“We had always been told that handwriting notes is better,” says Klingner. “You retain more. It produces a unique memory since each letter you write is different.”

That led them to start thinking about how they could make each keystroke feel distinctive. They considered making some keys feel harder or softer than others or having them make slightly different clicking sounds. Ultimately, they came back to where they had started: each key would have the raised letter or symbol it represented on it.

“The easiest thing to do,” says Klingner, “was to have raised lettering because it wouldn’t require a person to learn any new symbols or cues. It would just use their knowledge of the letters. They would know a raised ‘A’ was an ‘A.’"

Seems simple enough, but the pair soon realized that they would need to refine the idea a bit. There were subtle complications, such as the adjacency of the letters “M” and “N,” which could feel very much alike to a fast typist. So, they differentiated keys by using distinct configurations of dots and ridges to outline letters. The finished product was a rubbery cover that stretched and fit snugly over a keyboard.

They were ready for the ultimate field test—an elementary school classroom.

“We went in not expecting much,” Klingner concedes. “But almost right away the kids told us they could feel when they made a mistake.”

Fewer errors

Over time, data they gathered supported that. Kids using the raised letter keyboards made 40 percent fewer typing errors, according to Klingner.

That was enough to encourage them to move ahead with their invention. They were issued a patent to make use of raised letters on a keyboard. Then, after getting financing from an investor, they began pitching Keybodo to schools around the country. 

“As schools shift more towards typing instead of handwriting—laptops have become incredibly common—we think there’s need for trying to compensate for what’s lost,” Klingner says. “We sell the benefit of tactile learning. For tactile learners, this is a way they can feel letters without having to give up the convenience of a laptop.”

So far, Keybodo has been marketed mainly to school districts. Klingner says it’s now being tested in almost 100 different schools. That includes a classroom in Maine for dyslexic students. “The teacher is interested in seeing how it affects how they learn,” says Klingner. “He has the kids trace the letters. The idea is that when you feel the letters on a keyboard instead of just looking at them, they may not get flipped around.”

He points out that the product does seem to work better with younger students who are just learning to type, rather than older kids who have already been using keyboards for years. 

At the moment, Keybodo is designed only to fit over MacBook keyboards. But Klingner says versions that can work on all keyboards are now in production and should be available later this fall. Schools will continue to be the core market, but he believes Keybodo, which costs $15, also has a lot of potential as a direct-to-consumers product.

In that regard, the Keybodo website also promotes a side benefit—it keeps crumbs and dust from getting between and under keys. When a Keybodo gets dirty, it can just be lifted off and washed.

Klingner admits that he was surprised that something like the Keybodo didn’t already exist.

“We think that’s a good sign,” he says. “The good ideas are the ones where you say ‘How is it that nobody thought of this before?’"

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