Paul Makepeace ;-)

October 29, 2004

Stylus shorthand

Posted in: Tech

The topic of using phones to foster communities is one of the current bees buzzing in my bonnet at the moment and key is being able to communicate. Talking is one aspect of that, the other is SMS, and (soon) messaging on other protocols. Unfortunately data entry on a phone or even PDA sucks. You're stuck with,

  • traditional numeric keypad, 855,5557777#7777882226677771111 !
  • T9 predictive text, 8557#78267#6377
  • if you have a stylus phone you might have any of block, keyboard, recogniser, grafitti methods. Of those I haven't used grafitti but I imagine it sucks too. Certainly "keyboard" entry sucks.

So here's an idea to reduce the deafening sucking sound around phone data entry...


In a nutshell the idea is to use shorthand as data entry on systems that support a stylus. The kind of shorthand that secretaries, journalists, and so on use. Why? Because shorthand provides access to seriously fast data entry.


There exist a few forms of shorthand, the two I'm familiar with having attempted to learn shorthand years ago (and inventing my own crappy one) are Pitman 2000 and Teeline. The former is notable for requiring different stroke pressure (hard/soft) which immediately unappealed itself to me, furthermore it has 'decoration' around the outlines whereas Teeline appears to me far more flowing and economical. And having "2000" in a name is so 80s.

If you'd like to see some Teeline outlines check out these from an online course of practice audio files by UK's Goldsmiths University.

There's this too which looks good but I haven't read that either yet.


Fast teeliners hit speeds of 150wpm. That's about two thirds the average speed people read, and about twice as fast as I can type, and I'm a full 10-finger no-lookin'-ma touchtypist. So, seriously fast. From what I can gather, 70wpm writing speed is not at all uncommon with a couple of months practice based on standard recommendation of 30mins/day.

Shorthand as stylus input

Current recognition software makes some use of the fact that letters are essentially discrete items, with some additional forms to handle joined up writing. This apparently simple task has until fairly recently not really been satisfactorily solved. (The recognition on my PDA is impressively good despite my scrawling).


Like longhand, shorthand also has discrete letters but they're far more compact so there's less for the recogniser to "grip on to" to distinguish them. Further complications abound: most occurrences of vowels, and all doubled letters are missed out (they're surprisingly unnecessary given context). When vowels are written they're so compact at first sight it's not immediately apparent they're even there. Yet more: there are all sorts of rules to reduce the amount of time the pen is screeing across the page, e.g. letter 'l' written crossing the line is 'pl', drawing one letter through another can indicate a letter 'r', and on.

Even once the recogniser has correctly identified the sequence of letters in the outline there remains the issue of ambiguity since the vowels and doubled letters are missed out. Whl ths isnt a bg dl for hmns, cmptrs rnt so smrt. On the plus side there's some compression as a pleasant byproduct so your 160characters goes a little further. Now, if your reader can read shorthand, and the phone renders the SMS back into shorthand, they'll be able to read and recognise the forms/outlines rather than parse them down into individual letters so this won't be a problem. And to be honest most people are used to SMS-speak (even though I know some purists, usually over 25s, loathe it!)

One obvious downside to shorthand as a stylus input method is that most people don't know shorthand. That said, most people didn't know T9 either but have managed to learn it. (Admittedly, T9 is blatantly far easier to learn than shorthand.) Some might compare learning shorthand versus longhand to learning the Dvorak keyboard versus Qwerty but I don't think the analogy holds: Dvorak is really replacing, overlaying, and interfering with an existing skill whereas shorthand is a parallel, additional skill. I've tried to learn Dvorak and once you've mastered touchtyping Dvorak is hard.

Other efforts

This ACM publication, "Shorthand writing on a stylus keyboard" (2003) seems to be researching in a similar space but using a proprietary shorthand. I have the PDF from a friend with an ACM sub but I haven't read it yet.

This article on AI Tablet OCR is well worth a read for techs - some successful experiments in DIY AI recognising forms using homebrew neural nets. Wish I had time to play around with this some more.


Despite the obvious speed win, the question ultimately boils down to, is it interesting enough to people to be able to write at 50-70wpm on their phones? Right now, probably not. As applications come online where real-time communications like BBSs, chats, blogging, etc all transition online I think the pressure to break through the currently abysmal state-of-the-art will build.

Personal historical drivel

I started learning Teeline many years ago, the idea was that it would make taking notes in university lectures more efficient. Now, being a maths student shorthand is probably the least useful thing I could've been learning so this tells you a) how much I dislike writing b) how much I like to optimise out about every possible boring aspect of my life c) how much I would go to avoid maths :-)

My enthusiasm waned somewhat despite some initial success; it was looking like actual sustained effort would be required to learn this, and making an effort just isn't the done thing for students.

Anyway, I'm going to give it another crack with my shiny ability to learn stuff really damn quickly thanks to NLP and better general self-awareness. I was quite pleased to see after about an hour's study on the tube I'd got through the first four audio files on the Goldsmiths course more or less without error. Let's see if I can stick to it this time ;-)

Posted by Paul Makepeace at October 29, 2004 17:28 | TrackBack

Shorthand-Aided Rapid Keyboarding

Posted by: Nik at November 2, 2004 10:50

Hey I'd be happy for both shorthand and dvorak to be mainstream, although I don't know how likely it is to happen. I use dvorak because its much more comfortable to type in the layout, but the speed advantage is not great so thats probably why no big companies want to invest in it and risk a flop.

Shorthand has had its day, that hasn't stopped me from learning Gregg Anniversary Shorthand which was invented in 1929. Thing is it requires a lot of time and little direct business advantage, and if you talk to people my age these days (19), many of them are so money-driven that even if they are learning a language at school, they are choosing based on what has better business prospects.

I guess the first challenge would be to resurrect a shorthand system, by the time we do that, Recognition technology will be easily good enough.

Posted by: Michael L at February 10, 2008 12:54
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