Virtual Keyboard Technology? It’s about time…or too soon?

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By Danny Stieben

A Cool Product Review

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The Celluon EPIC is a virtual keyboard by means of projection, meaning that it can use laser light to project an image of a keyboard onto a flat surface in front of it. It can then detect whenever you “press a key” on the flat surface and translate that into a keystroke that the computer actually understands. Long story short, it’s a fancy keyboard that looks futuristic and can theoretically provide some benefits (primarily space and weight when compared to a regular Bluetooth keyboard). You can get it off of Amazon for $149.99

Competitors

Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any competitors to the Celluon EPIC. Celluon makes the claim that it’s the world’s only virtual projection keyboard, and that claim appears to be true. The only other product that can be found is the Celluon Magic Cube ($150), which just seems to be the EPIC’s predecessor — but it could be seen as the only competitor since it’s still being sold. This is pretty rare, however, since the Celluon EPIC is already a few years old. But, if any other alternatives do exist somewhere, then they aren’t major enough to really be found by any consumer for purchase.

The Celluon EPIC Virtual Keyboard comes with the follow specifications:

    19mm key pitch
    Overall keyboard dimensions: 100mm height, 240mm width
    Device dimensions: 70mm x 35mm x 20mm
    Available as English QWERTY and German QWERTZ
    Recognition rate: 350 characters per minute (or 70 words per minute)
    Light source: red laser diode (IEC Class 1 Laser)
    660 mAh battery
    2 hours of use on battery, 3 hours to charge the battery
    Connect via Bluetooth
    Compatible operating systems: iOS 4+, Android 4.0+, Windows XP+, Mac OS X, Blackberry 10. Linux is also compatible

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Experience

Using the Celluon EPIC is a very interesting experience. The keyboard that is emitted onto the surface in front of it is decently sized, and includes all of the keys you’ll care about — it’s nearly the same to a full-sized keyboard, but not quite. You’ll find a few buttons such as apostrophes, quotation marks, and more along the very top where you’d find the F1-F12 keys on a normal keyboard. The keyboard projection is a bit faint in well-lit areas, but darker areas will provide a well-defined keyboard.

To get the keyboard to function correctly, you have to make absolutely sure that you’re using a flat, opaque surface. I tried using it once on a table that had a layer of glass on top of the wood, and it didn’t function exactly as it should — it thought I was pressing a neighboring key instead. However, once the conditions are right, the keyboard is actually pretty usable. The keys are recognized, and the maximum typing speed is acceptable (it’s still quite a bit lower than my normal typing speed, but it’s tolerable).

According to the manufacturer, keystrokes are recognized and then relayed via an invisible infrared layer combined with an optical sensor. The recognition process works as follows: When the user presses a key on the projected keyboard, the infrared layer is interrupted. This produces UV reflections that are recognized by the sensor in three dimensions, allowing the system to assign a coordinate (keyboard character). Whenever I cover the optical sensor, the device doesn’t detect any keystrokes, so this seems to be correct.

Feedback Solution (And A New Problem)

One of my biggest concerns about this virtual keyboard was the fact that I wouldn’t actually have any tactile feedback, which is a criticism of most keyboards that don’t have traditional physical keys that depress. However, I was very surprised — the Celluon EPIC accommodates for this by beeping every time it recognizes a key press. Since this is still sensory feedback, it isn’t quite as awkward as no feedback at all.

The beeps do lead to another problem though — it can get annoying for anyone else around you. If you were to say use this in a classroom setting where quietness is a must, this is an absolute deal-breaker. You’d quickly annoy everyone in that class as well as the teacher. Even worse, there’s no way to turn the beeping off — there’s no settings page that you can access, and there’s only the on/off switch for the entire device. There’s nothing that would control the beeping. Sadly, while I think this solution is pretty clever, it creates another problem that in some ways may even be worse than the original issue.
Typing Speed

Like I mentioned above, the keyboard is surprisingly accurate in the keystrokes it detects, but that detection comes at the price of typing speed. Typing at 70 words per minute may sound like a lot, but most people don’t type at a consistent speed for an entire minute. They have bursts of quicker and slower typing, and once you have one of your faster bursts, the projection device will start to miss some of those keystrokes. To give a rough approximation, it cannot detect anything faster than someone who’s become fairly proficient at typing on their smartphone or tablet’s on-screen keyboard.
Satisfying the Flat, Opaque Surface Requirement

Do you always have a large, flat, opaque surface available wherever you go? Chances are the answer to this is no. In school, a lot of desks I sit at are quite small, so there wouldn’t be any room for a projected keyboard — or if there was, then there wouldn’t be enough room to also have a tablet standing on the same desk.

Also, a lot of times you’ll probably be using a tablet or computer on your lap, while you’re sitting down, not in front of any sort of table. In scenarios like this, you won’t be able to use the EPIC. Having a flat, opaque surface is a hard requirement, or else it simply won’t function. While it works well in the conditions required by the device, I don’t often come across those conditions while I’m on the go — if I’m at home, I’d rather be using a regular full-sized keyboard rather than the EPIC.

Conclusion

So, is the Celluon EPIC an awesome piece of technology? It sure is! Is it something you should put on your shopping list? I don’t think it is. While it’s a really neat concept and it actually works surprisingly well, it’s still far from being a product that makes it an obviously better option to a regular Bluetooth keyboard. Simply put, it’s too expensive, the beeping can’t be turned off, and the flat, opaque surface requirement may be quite difficult to satisfy for some users. I really think that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

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