Initiative to standardise virtual keyboards

An initiative has been launched under the aegis of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to standardise virtual or touch-screen keyboards in Indian languages for use in smart phones and tablet computers.

A new working group, approved by the IEEE Standards Association, began functioning towards the end of January ( > with a mandate to develop a virtual keyboard standard for Indic languages. The IEEE is a global not-for-profit professional body involved in formulating technical standards, among other things.

Efficient and user-friendly virtual keyboards in Indian languages have become all the more necessary, given the pace at which smart phones are becoming an important part of everyday life. The use of tablet computers is also fast gaining ground. The touch screen is the main interface on these devices and the keyboards are virtual ones, displaying the characters as required.

Despite a measure of support available for the use of Indian languages on smart phones, the input schemes and keyboards have not been standardised. “While Indian language rendering is supported by a few vendors, input methods have not been a high priority even for them. Virtual keyboard support for iOS (the Apple operating system) and Android-based phones is provided through a few free and paid apps. There is a potential for fragmentation of these input methods, hence the urgent need for this standardisation attempt,” said Arjuna Rao Chavala, chair of the working group.

Conventional or physical Indian language keyboards are known to have a steep learning curve. The InScript keyboard, whose development has been spearheaded by the government and its agencies, is the most widely adopted one among them. The learning difficulty partly arises from adapting the standard English keyboard (called QWERTY after the first row of letters on it) for Indian language use, despite the differences between the scripts. Text input in Indian languages is complex partly because of the ‘extra' effort required in terms of key inputs to produce the various syllable combinations. The sheer number of consonants, vowel and vowel signs and the manner in which letters can be joined together, called conjuncts, also adds to the complexity. This keyboard layout cannot be ideally adapted to a virtual touch-screen environment owing to screen resolution limitations and technical reasons, experts say.

Phonetic or transliteration keyboards, which use English inputs to generate the phonetic equivalent in the corresponding Indian language, are easier to use. But they might require more keystrokes than the InScript keyboard, Mr. Chavala said, citing a study.

Virtual keyboards might make the input effort easier because of the flexibility possible in the display of each Indian language alphabet. “Display of Indian language alphabets will take away the first hurdle of lack of visual correspondence when typing Indian languages. The keyboard layout standardisation will help users so that they can learn once and continue to use the skill without problem, even when they change their smart phones or move to alternate computing devices like tablets,” he explained.

The aim is to make the virtual keyboards as intuitive to use as possible with respect to the layout of the keys. “It may look different from the InScript or phonetic keyboards but users should not have a problem getting used to it,” Mr. Chavala said.

The time taken to formulate the standard would depend on the contribution of volunteer members of the working group, with the IEEE allowing for a period of up to four years for finalising it. But Mr. Chavala said it would be good to have the standard drafted in one year and released three-six months thereafter to keep it relevant and in tune with industry developments. This initiative has attracted considerable global interest, especially among those focussing on Indian language computing. The group includes members affiliated to industry, the government, semi-public research institutions, academia and also individuals.

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 4:25:35 PM |

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