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Connecting people with technology

Virtual keyboard technology makes it possible to type anywhere

Two years ago, becoming an entrepreneur was not on Will Walmsley’s radar. Today, he can’t imagine doing anything else, thanks to a program that helped him take his master’s degree research project and turn it into a business.

That business is Toronto, Ontario-based Whirlscape, a startup company with a seven-member staff that wants to help write the next chapter in how we humans interact with the electronic devices that are daily becoming more intertwined with our lives. Whirlscape’s first offering is the Minuum virtual keyboard, a smartphone app invented by Walmsley that reduces the bulky on-screen QWERTY keyboard to just a single line of letters. Not only does it save precious screen real estate, but it delivers accurate results from “sloppy” typing.

Minuum went from a university research project to a commercial venture thanks to the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology (UTEST) program, a joint offering from the MaRS Innovation CECR and the University of Toronto that provides access to vital start-up funding, office space, mentoring and business strategy support.

Will Walmsley

Will Walmsley

“The UTEST program is really all about having mentors who are ready to coach you on every possible aspect of business, from incorporating, to recruiting lawyers, to intellectual property, to signing agreements,” Walmsley says. “Without the UTEST program, there’s a good chance the work we were doing would have simply remained a university-based research project. We would have published some more papers in science journals, but it wouldn’t have gone much beyond that.”

Walmsley emphasizes that the Minuum technology has potential uses that go well beyond just another cell phone app and freeing up screen space. Thanks to the simplicity of the keyboard and the capacity of the algorithm to correctly interpret the user’s intentions even if the typing is inaccurate, Whirlscape’s CEO and lead designer says Minuum can open new doors for human interaction with electronic devices.

Reshaping the keyboard into a horizontal line makes it possible to turn other inputs, such as hand movements, into typing. That means developers can find uses for it in cutting-edge wearable computing devices, including smart watches, augmented reality glasses such as Google Glass, or various motion sensing controllers. The fact that the technology was designed from the beginning with imprecise inputs in mind means it is adaptable to situations where it is impossible to be precise, including use by people with various motor, visual or cognitive disabilities.

Users and industry analysts have enthusiastically embraced the Minuum keyboard concept. Soon after Whirlscape was formed, it opted to look for investment funding through the crowdfunding Indiegogo site. It quickly surpassed its $10,000 target, raising an astounding $87,354 during a month-long campaign. As part of their investment, nearly 10,000 users got a chance to preview the beta version of the app and provide feedback to the company.

When the keyboard made its public debut in the Google Play Store in August, it quickly surged to the number two spot on Google’s Top New Paid Android Apps list, the only non-game application to crack the top 10. It also made it into the top 10 of the Top Paid in Android Apps list, and received a four-star rating from users. Minuum now has over 20,000 users.

Walmsley says feedback from users is helping the company improve the app. Whirlscape also provides development kits to allow outside designers to come up with their own innovations. “The intention is to encourage everyone to play around with it and invent new ways of leveraging our technology,” he concludes.