Type with your mouse - or even your eyes

by Giles Turnbull

Related link: http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher/

If you want to enter text on a computer, you need to use a keyboard. Well, that's the accepted norm. Some people use speech-to-text apps, but the vast majority use keyboards.

But now there's another option. A software project by a physicist at Cambridge University has developed a new way of entering text on a computer.

The ingenious thing is that it works on pretty much any computer you can think of, and no new hardware is required.

The program is called Dasher, and can be downloaded for free for use on Windows, Macintosh and Linux computers. I've tried it on my Mac and it works perfectly. After just a few minutes of use, I was entering text into TextEdit and rather enjoying the experience.

Screenshot of Dasher at work
Here's what Dasher looks like

It works by moving an on-screen cursor to select letters. But modifications could be made to hook it up to special equipment, so that people can control a virtual mouse just by flicking their eye from side to side.

The on-screen interface is not a virtual keyboard, either. All you see is a simple small window, and a jumble of letters on the right side. As you move the cursor to that side, the letters start to move, and grow. You select one by letting it glide underneath the mouse - that's all there is to it.

Better still, Dasher includes code to help it predict what word you are trying to create. Select an 'h', then an 'e', and you'll see the letters 'llo' zooming in from the right to complete the whole word - "hello".

It sounds bizarre and complicated, but after just a few minutes of playing, it's very easy to get to grips with the basics. Some more complex movements take a bit more time to grasp, though. While I was having fun when the software correctly predicted the word I wanted to enter, I felt frustrated and flustered when it got the word wrong and forced me to backtrack and start again.

It was also hard to use without quite intense concentration, which is where touch-typists who can type and have a conversation with someone simultaneously have the advantage. Using Dasher means it's impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen, even for a moment.

Nonetheless, Dasher shows signs of being an extremely valuable project in future. It will be enormously useful to computer users with disabilities, who cannot always use a standard keyboard.

Anyone who has ever used a pocket computer or handheld PC, and hates having to learn the scribble language used to enter text on one, might also like to keep an eye on Dasher.

How cool would it be to have a Dasher-equipped mobile phone, or better still, a Dasher-powered iPod for making notes or editing contacts on? Dasher's GUI would seem to me ideally suited for use with the iPod's unique scrollwheel.

Does Dasher do it for you?


2004-11-10 00:19:32
Pretty cool stuff
Well, this is pretty cool. But it is a little slow. I could probably get used to it, though. I'm really amazed by the predictive capability of it. It is sometimes a little bit difficult to find the character I'm looking for. I do see a lot of potential, though, especially after gaining some proficiency in its use. It has taken several minutes, but I managed to write this entire post using Dasher! I have learned a lot about how to use it and I have gained significant speed in that short time.

Note: I did have to do some editing of typos (or would those be pointos?), including adding this sentence before posting.

2004-11-10 11:41:39
Pretty cool stuff
I had fun playing with it, and it really was fun (useful? We'll have to wait and see).

When you "pointed" the post above, how did you add the punctuation? I hadn't figured that part out yet.

2004-11-10 12:16:10
Pretty cool stuff
You can add punctuation, etc. via dasher's preferences.