Is There a Future for Keyboards with Active Displays?

By Will Greenwald

Microsoft just unveiled its new Adaptive Keyboard prototype at the User Interface Software and Technology symposium.

Microsoft  just unveiled its new Adaptive Keyboard prototype at the UIST (User Interface Software and Technology symposium). This keyboard uses a large touchscreen display and customizable keys to let users change, tweak, and otherwise perfect their keyboards. They can replace their QWERTY layout with a Dvorak layout, arrange their favorite programs or Photoshop palettes on the touchpad, and otherwise customize the keyboard to their heart's content. It won't be available in stores any time soon, but a select few will be given to a handful of students participating in the UIST Student Interface Contest to show just how far they can push the limits of computer interfaces with the keyboard.
Optimus Maximus and Tactus keyboards; all three combine the form factor and purpose of a computer keyboard with the flexibility of a computer display.

Logitech's G15 and G19 keyboards seem ideal for gaming, because their GamePanel LCDs can display vital information like ammo and health, or offer a mini-map or other intelligence. Almost 50 games officially support the GamePanel display on the G15 and G19, and a handful of utilities and a whole slew of user-created mods are available to put that screen to use. Both keyboards' displays remain a gimmick, something generally considered only after the products' keyboard functions. 

Optimus Maximus, Tactus, and the Adaptive Keyboard suffer from this problem far worse than the G15 and G19. Logitech's keyboards have at least some commercial support. With only a handful of Optimus Maximii under the hands of consumers, the Tactus still a concept, and the Adaptive Keyboard an exclusive prototype, there's no reason for Microsoft, Google, or Adobe to put together a software package to take full advantage of the display keyboard's potential. If you want complex information to appear on your keys, or for your favorite images, art, and symbols to dance under your fingertips, you need to either do the coding yourself or hope an enthusiast has done the coding for you. 
That's perhaps the point of giving the Adaptive Keyboard to aspiring students at the UIST symposium. By getting the hardware to software developers first, even if the developers are just students looking to see just what they can figure out, Microsoft will get a chance to see some of the more creative and useful applications of the keyboard's displays before even considering releasing it as a commercial product. With that research done, the company could produce a standard interface and series of apps for the keyboard and integrate them into the system functions of Windows 7 or future versions of the OS. 
If that happens, when the Adaptive Keyboard or its conceptual grandson hits stores, users will be able to buy it, plug it in, and be certain that they can get their favorite information and settings (or, at least, the most commonly accessed information and configured settings as determined by market research) on the keyboard with a few clicks instead of searching the web for just the right bundle of apps to tweak or configuring everything manually, key by key. 
Power users, hackers, coders, makers, tinkers, and other hardcore computer geeks might love the sheer potential offered by the Optimus Maximus or the Adaptive Keyboard. We might salivate at the prospect of making every single key our own custom-built tool, designed to fit our tastes and needs. We might even take pleasure in doing all the work ourselves. But we're not most users, and at the end of the day whether a new user interface design becomes popular is decided by them, not us. Whether you consider complex configuration an adventure or a chore, as long as it requires any significant effort it won't be adopted by mainstream users.