IIT-B designs keyboard to make chatting in Indian languages easier

The Swarachakra is available in 12 languages; platform connects multiple smartphones at the same time

Published - March 18, 2017 04:07 am IST - Mumbai

The Industrial Design Centre (IDC) in IIT Bombay has designed Swarachakra, a free Indian language keyboard for Android phones. Swarachakra is available in 12 Indian languages, and is integrated with the Better Together framework, which allows users to run an application on multiple phones at the same time. Users can type on one phone using the Swarachakra keyboard and see the conversation on the second phone.

The Better Together toolkit and Swarachakra keyboard will be unveiled on Monday at the Microsoft Research in Bangalore. The ‘Better Together’ framework was developed as part of a project titled, ‘Re-shaping the Expected Future’ initiated by Future Interaction Technology Lab in Swansea University, U.K., and funded by European organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The Swarachakra is available in Hindi, Marathi, Konkani, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Oriya, Bengali, Assamese, Punjabi and Gujarati.

A big part of this story, said Prof Anirudha Joshi of the IDC School of Design who led the six-member IIT-B team, was that text inputs in Indian languages were fairly weak. On Wikipedia, for instance, there is very little material in Indian languages. “It’s a symptom of the larger problem. It’s not true of East Asia or even Africa, though. The reason is not politics or social phenomena. It’s to do with the structure of scripts we use.”

Indian languages, he explained, fall into the Abugida category — a family of script mainly in use in the Indian sub-continent, and some parts of Africa and Canada. The other categories are the alphabet — Greek, Latin and so on; the Abjad — Persian or Urdu, in use in West Asia and North Africa; and the infographic script in Japan, China and Korea. “The Abugida has a unique script structure, and text input mechanisms need to take that into account,” he said.

The idea took shape during the desktop computer era, when the team had to discard the standard Qwerty keyboard and develop a physical keyboard suited for Indian scripts. The team made about a 100 keyboards, but used them for internal research projects.

“The main story was when Android phones became available. We did a few experiments, and came up with Swarachakra.” The ‘chakra’ appears with consonant options next to a word.

The ‘dynamic’ keyboard, which shows how different letters look post-typing, is designed keeping the structure of Indian scripts in mind, explained Prof. Joshi. The word ‘car’, when typed in Hindi, for instance, has a vowel modifier after the first letter – the keyboard takes that into account, besides offering the possibility of combining two characters into one, such as when the word ‘act’ is written in Hindi. “A typical keyboard is designed for the alphabet, and doesn’t support these complexities.”

Nearly six years ago, a research paper referred to “the puzzle of text input in Indian languages.” Today, it’s no longer a puzzle, at least not on the smartphone. “What we were left to work on was speed and accuracy.”

The idea of typing words on one smartphone and seeing words appear on another was that most users who use Whatsapp, Facebook messenger, Hike or Viber, see the chat on only half of the screen, while the other half is covered by the keyboard, especially in case of use of Indian languages.

“Many homes in India have more than one smartphone. Also, messages are getting longer. This allows you to read the whole message you are composing.”

The ‘splitting’ project was born out of a collaboration with Swansea University, on technology for emergent users — those new to the internet or even to smartphones. “Currently, smartphones are for those already familiar with the desktop. But for a lot of people, it is the only connection with technology.”

So far, there have been 18 lakh downloads of the new keyboard, says Prof. Joshi. “We’re seeing about one lakh downloads a month.”

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