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Originally published Monday, August 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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SHARK spells relief for tired thumbs

Humans in their long history have invented only two ways for individuals to produce text: handwriting and typing on a keyboard. Shumin Zhai, an IBM...

San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Humans in their long history have invented only two ways for individuals to produce text: handwriting and typing on a keyboard.

Shumin Zhai, an IBM scientist, may have invented another way: SHARK, an abbreviation for ShortHand-Aided Rapid Keyboarding.

SHARK is intended for writing text with a stylus on small touch-sensitive screens, such as those found in cellphones and personal digital assistants. It uses a radically different approach that is easy to learn and fast.

Zhai gave a presentation on SHARK earlier this month during a conference at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., where he works, and his ideas led me to one of those rare eye-opening moments when you suddenly see what could be the answer to a long-festering problem.

The problem is how to comfortably enter text onto the screens of pocket-size devices. Anyone who uses a cellphone to laboriously tap out text messages, or a BlackBerry to respond to e-mail, knows what I'm talking about — those tiny keypads cause thumb strain. At the same time, software that attempts to recognize either speech or regular handwriting isn't reliable.

SHARK in its current form — demonstrated so far on full-size Windows XP notebooks — puts a small grid on the screen. The grid shows a cluster of letters in what appears to be random order.

To write a word, you put the stylus on the first letter of the word, then drag the stylus to draw a line through the alphabet cluster, touching every letter in the word. When you lift up the stylus after hitting the last letter, SHARK figures out what word you want and displays it on the screen.

If SHARK makes a mistake, you tap the word and get a list of the most likely alternatives based on the path you traced through the grid.

Zhai sent me the most recent version of SHARK, and it worked like magic. (I didn't have a notebook with a touch-sensitive screen, but I found a mouse works in place of a stylus.) More than nine times out of 10, the software displayed the word I wanted. When SHARK got it wrong, the correct word was almost always the second or third choice on the drop-down list.

If you want to see for yourself, Zhai has posted an earlier version of SHARK on his Web site ( Zhai, working in collaboration with graduate student Per-Ola Kristensson, is promising to post a much-improved SHARK Version 2 soon. Over time, SHARK users learn to make familiar words just by drawing the appropriate line on the screen — for example, "the" is a simple reverse C motion.

Zhai calls these simple line drawings "sokgraphs," and says users can learn sokgraphs for the 50 to 60 mostly commonly used words in four training sessions of 45 minutes each. Those words represent about 40 percent of what we write.

SHARK sokgraphs build up in your "sense memory" over time. But you're never stuck, because you can always look at the SHARK screen if you don't know where to move the stylus. You can even tap out letters one at a time if necessary.


IBM hasn't yet decided how to commercialize SHARK, but Zhai is confident the software could be ready for customers with a few months' notice.

As enthusiastic as I am about SHARK, I've learned to never mistake a research project for a sure thing. SHARK may be too different from conventional writing or typing to gain public acceptance.

But, if nothing else, SHARK stands as a challenge to all the bright people in Silicon Valley working on next-generation wireless gadgets.

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