Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

We’re All Thumbs – and That’s Good…

On a recent cross-country flight, I happened to be sitting across the aisle from a lady of rather large stature. No, I don’t mean that she was overweight – she was simply quite large in comparison to the typical Caucasian female. She was well over 6 feet tall and of large bone structure to go with her extra height. As our trip progressed, I found it difficult not to watch her as she worked on answering various messages that were stored in her Blackberry communicator.

As we all know, the keyboard on this device is somewhere between really small and tiny. There is no way to use a normal hand position over this itsy-bitsy keyboard to type a message. The only way most of us can do it is by using our thumbs in a slow and laborious hunt and peck method. Of course it helps to have learned touch typing somewhere along the way since at least then the relative location of the various keys is familiar.

But how does one do this with hands that are substantially larger than average and have long artificial fingernails added to make the task even more challenging? It was really quite amazing to watch her cosmetically-enhanced thumbs flying over the tiny keys as message after message was completed and stored away for later sending. Even after watching off and on for several hours, I can’t fully explain how she was able to access each little key without hitting at least four of its neighbors. It just didn’t look possible.

I must admit that I cannot claim this level of thumb dexterity -- even after many years of practicing to play the piano. But although I don’t use a Blackberry in my normal business activities, I too have had to undergo at least rudimentary “symbological” training in thumb-addressed communications. For me that came about as cell phones became smaller and the need to communicate at all times and from all locations became the expected norm. I must admit that it took some practice in positioning the phone in the palm of my hand and a few mis-dialed numbers but I am now able to dial a number while driving – using just my thumb -- without taking my eyes off the road and with a high degree of accuracy.

Isn’t all of this really quite amazing? As human beings we are remarkably adaptable, trainable, and have quite extraordinary abilities to interact with various mechanical devices. The only problem is that once we are trained we really don’t like to have to change or to start all over again. That is of course at least one of the reasons why the QWERTY keyboard is still the one we use on our computers – be they normal size or miniaturized. And personally I’m glad that this stick-in-the-mud stability exists. I learned touch typing in high school on a manual typewriter as a way to prepare for what I thought would be a useful skill in college and graduate school. And it sure came in handy with all the term papers, and later on, thesis work. My only challenge was that although I could type quite quickly, doing it without mistakes was an entirely different matter.

What a blessing it was when the desktop computer came along and even the first rudimentary word processors allowed me to make, and instantly correct, as many mistakes as my poorly-organized mind produced. Changes and revisions became a trivial task. It was no longer necessary to write out drafts just so the typing would end up looking unspoiled by white-outs and erasures. And here I am, many years later, typing on a keyboard that is not all that different than the one I used in high school. But, of course, way back then I had no way to anticipate that not only would I use all ten of my fingers to write these messages, I would also have to train my thumbs to do extra duty.

So as I poke away at my cell phone and my other communications devices with their miniaturized keyboards, it seems like a miracle of evolution that my largest digits are the ones doing the work requiring the greatest dexterity.

Is it likely that this is but a transitory phenomenon? Will we come up with something a bit more efficient – and faster – in the next few years? It seems to me that there are at least two possibilities. One would be to have direct voice communication with our computers. That would work for many situations but may not be so good in noisy environments like airplanes – or where others are likely to overhear our private communications. The other possibility might be a keyboard combined with a flexible display that could be unrolled and used more like a laptop computer. That may not be so far off with the progress that is being made on flexible circuits and flexible displays.

The need and desire for portable “wearable” electronics will grow over the coming years. Devices that enhance our abilities to communicate from any location at any time will be especially in demand. Anything that we in the display community can do to facilitate further improvements in this area will find rapid acceptance by the marketplace. But in the meantime, we will just have to keep our thumbs flexible and in practice so that they can flit from key to tiny key on our currently available rudimentary electronic communicators.

Should you wish to make a few brief comments about this column, I invite you to do so by whatever large or small keyboard you happen to have available to you. Of course, the older methods of telephone and fax machine will work equally well. I look forward to hearing from you. You may reach me from this site, directly by e-mail at, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.