Within a few years, the computer keyboard may go the way of the typewriter. It will be replaced by a light-projected device that mimics the look of a traditional keyboard and shines on a flat surface, such as a desk or table.

Many wireless devices, such as personal digital assistants, notebook computers and mobile telephones, are too small to incorporate a full-sized keyboard. That leads to alternative forms of data input, such as thumb keyboards, that are not as user friendly as the standard-size Qwerty keyboard most people are familiar with.

Canesta Inc. (San Jose, CA) recently unveiled an infrared keyboard made of light that is easy to use. Nazim Kareemi, president and CEO, claims his company’s virtual keyboard has the potential to make pocket technology much more usable, which should generate more consumer demand.

When an electronic device is equipped with the Integrated Canesta Keyboard, which consists of a sensor embedded with image-processing software, a tiny laser projects the image of a full-sized keyboard onto a flat surface. End users "type" on this image.

Electronic perception technology watches an end user’s fingers move and translates that into keystrokes in the device. The projection keyboard is made possible by a tiny sensor fitted with three chips--one to beam the keyboard image and two chips to pick up the movement of typing fingers. That typing movement interacts with the light and sends signals to the sensor.

The only drawback is that the typist can’t rest his fingers on the keyboard. Of course, there’s no tactile feel or the familiar chatter that comes from tapping keys. However, Kareemi claims that proficient typists can create 70 to 80 words a minute with the hologram-like keyboard, which can also function like a mouse.

The heart of Canesta’s patented technology is a small, moving-image sensor and software that sees the environment in three-dimensional contours, rather than the flat, two-dimensional images traditionally provided by video camera chips. According to Kareemi, the 3D sensors "can be used by manufacturers to economically ‘sight-enable’ even the most modestly priced consumer or industrial appliance." The sensors provide more than 50 3D frames per second.

"Canesta’s software starts with a three-dimensional, countour map view of the world, provided directly by the hardware," explains Kareemi. "It has a substantial advantage over classical image processing software that struggles to construct three-dimensional representations using complex mathematics, and using images from multiple cameras or points of view."

Kareemi believes there are numerous applications for electronic perception technology, which he defines as "technology that permits machines, consumer and electronic devices, or virtually any other class of modern product, to perceive and react to objects and individuals in the nearby environment in real time."

In addition to consumer products, such as wireless devices and video games, Kareemi says "automotive, industrial and medical products will gain functionality and ease of use not possible in an era when electronics were blind." Potential applications include automotive air bag deployment, building security systems and medical diagnosis equipment.

"What sets electronic perception technology apart from classical computer vision applications is that for the first time, actionable information can be developed in real time by observation of the nearby environment utilizing an ultra-low-cost sensor technology," adds Kareemi. "Electronic perception technology uses a four-layer model that is mirrored in the actual implementation of the technology: see, perceive, identify and react. These are actions that happen automatically in animals and humans, but are virtually nonexistent in machines, except in specialized and usually expensive applications, supported typically with extraordinary amounts of computing power."

VKB Ltd. (Jerusalem) also has developed a virtual keyboard that is projected on a flat surface and incorporates a system that can detect user keystrokes.