You know what I haven’t once thought since purchasing my ASUS ZenWatch? “Man, I wish this thing had a software keyboard!” Nope, not even once. But someone clearly has, as the developers behind the 5-TILES keyboard for Android smartphones have brought their signature tile-based keyboard to Android Wear users in the form of a messaging app, called Wear 5-TILES.
ETAOI Systems, the company behind Wear 5-TILES, says that the app allows for “freedom of writing” on your watch, and without the need for autocorrect or preset messages. That’s a pretty bold statement, especially from a company that has a dedicated app in Google Play designed just for learning how to use their keyboard. An app dedicated to learning how to use a third-party keyboard! That’s incredible.
Anyway, what is this keyboard all about and how does it work? At its core, Wear 5-TILES compresses a traditional QWERTY keyboard down to just five tiles, each of which include 5 letters and two alternative characters. Each letter and alt-character is mapped to a specific swipe gesture. If you’re old enough to have owned a flip phone, this may sound familiar to how you had to mash a numerical key more than once to get to one of the letters also mapped to that key, but as a second citizen. Only now, you’re swiping instead of mashing.
Each tile has a first-class citizen letter, meaning you can choose that letter with a single tap. For all other letters mapped to a tile, you hold your finger over the tile your desired letter is in and then slide it across the screen to whichever tile is in the position your letter is written in on the initial tile. For example, if a tile has the letter list “abcde” written on it, to get to ‘d’ you would hold your finger down on the tile and then slide it all the way to the furthest tile on the right and release. If the letter you want is second to last, you hold your finger down on the tile, slide it to the second to last tile, and release. Accessing the alt-keys is an up or down swipe, dependent on whether it’s at the top or bottom of the tile. If any of that is confusing to you, watch the video at the top for a demonstration.
Initially when you download and launch Wear 5-TILES it’s pretty confusing to try and figure out how it works as there isn’t much hand holding unless you download a completely separate smartphone app. There are two modes to the keyboard: standard and learning mode. The difference between the two is that by default, when you hold your finger over a tile with the character you want nothing changes graphically, so there are no visual cues that you must then slide your finger to a tile containing completely different characters on it to get to the one you want from the initial tile you held your finger over. The learning mode is a bit better, however, as when enabled, holding your finger over a tile changes all 5 tiles on-screen to the 5 letters on the tile you initially held your finger over, so it’s obvious where you need to slide your finger to get at a letter or character. The developers are of course assuming that eventually the mapping will become muscle memory if you use the keyboard enough, but I’m of the opinion that it should default to learning mode.
Unfortunately even with my full attention, it’s easy to make mistakes, nearly impossible to see the tiny keys in anything other than a dark room, and it’s a real pain to move the cursor around when it inexplicably bounces back to the beginning of the compose box. It’s, in short, a claustrophobic typing experience.
Here’s what the CEO of ETAOI Systems had to say (press kit) about the new Wear implementation of his company’s keyboard:
More and more people are getting excited with smartwatches but its lack of functionalities is diminishing that excitement and holding back potential new users and app developers. With a text input system specifically designed for these devices we blow wide open the possibilities, not only for the future ‘killer app’ but for the current popular apps like Facebook, Whatsapp or Hangout that without a keyboard they can’t fully flourish on smartwatches
And herein seems to lie the real problem with this keyboard: the company behind it completely misunderstands the platform it has built it on. Smartwatches are not meant to be something for everybody – they’re not meant to do it all, and just because you can do something on a smartwatch doesn’t mean you should. These wrist computers are an evolution of the original vision presented to us for Google Glass (the face computer), to put us back in the real world and leave us less distracted than we would be pulling out our phones constantly (although in fairness it can look pretty rude to glance at your watch while talking to somebody). They’re supposed to be proactive, giving us just small bits of information that we can either decide to act on if important or quickly flick away if not.
For anything short, Google’s native voice dictation for sending text and Hangout messages is sufficient, and for anything a sentence or longer, pulling out your phone makes sense if only because it’s much less claustrophobic. No smartwatch keyboard has ever taken off, and I don’t see this one turning that trend around. Wear 5-TILES is $1.49 in Google Play for a limited time, but it should be free.