Stenotype machines are usually most visible when court reporters are using them. They've been around since the 1800s, when their output was holes in paper tape. Today's versions are essentially chorded keyboards that act as computer input devices. (Douglas Engelbart famously showed off a chorded keyboard during his 1968 Mother of All Demos.) Today you have The Open Steno Project, and Stenosaurus is a member. And while Joshua's project may not have an actual website quite yet, it has an active blog. And the 225 WPM claim? Totally possible. The world record for English language stenography is 360 WPM. And you thought the Dvorak Keyboard was fast. Hah! (Alternate Video Link)
Timothy Lord: You have computing hardware here.
Joshua Lifton: Yep.
Tim: And these are stenographic keyboards.
Joshua: Yeah. So, these are prototype steno typing machines, they’re used for stenography. Stenography is over 100 years old. It was originally done on a keyboard. They looked pretty much the same layout, but a different physical form, and it had a roll of paper that would unroll as you typed and then later you would go back and look at the markings on the paper which were just dots and you would transcribe that to English language. So the goal of stenography is to do this transcription in real time, so as quickly as anybody could speak, the conservation between two lawyers or a medical examiner and somebody else could occur, somebody will be sitting there, a stenographer will be sitting there, transcribing it in real time, that’s the origin of stenography. And it really hasn’t changed that much. This same keyboard layout has persisted for over 100 years. The theory behind learning it and using it is essentially the same. They went digital about 30 or 40 years ago and really since then it hasn’t changed much at all. What we’re doing here is we’re bringing it into the modern age in a couple of different ways, first everything is being open sourced. Up until now everything has been closed sourced and quite expensive, so
Tim: What does expensive mean in this case?
Joshua: Expensive means for a machine you’re looking at a couple of thousand, maybe up to $4,000, $5,000 for the software which is required to make machine work on a computer, again another $2000, $4,000 and then there’s the cost of education, so actually learning how to use it and training yourself and whatnot can be many times more than that. So you’re looking at kind of a minimum $10,000 investment for a professional quality setup. The little price point necessitates a different physical setup, so this machine has physical key switches as opposed to levers that most steno machines have. It’s more like a piano almost, so that brings the cost down a little bit, but really there is just a lot of innovation that goes into this, that doesn’t exist yet in the modern stenography world. So for example you don’t need any software on your computer to use this, right, you can plug it in, your computer will recognize it as USB keyboard, and you just start typing, and this can happen on any computer. Right now there’s no other stenotype machine that can do that.
Tim: Since stenography generally means making phonetic output, how does this interpret that to make an intelligible bit string? If I type “jumped over the hill”
Joshua: Yeah, right, right, right. The foundation of stenography is phonetic. It’s phonetic mapping between what you are hearing and what you would chord out. The way that translation actually takes place, half of it’s in the human, you need to learn what that mapping is, right, what am I hearing and then how do my fingers move on the keyboard to make that phonetic representation and then from there you end up with what's called a chord and that chord is then translated according to software, in this case in the machine, and it’s a giant look-up table. There’s a large dictionary that translates this particular chord or set of chords into this arbitrary string, and that string can be a single letter, it could be a word, it could be phrase, it could be an entire book, right, it’s really totally up to you what that is. Now there are standards of course, and the standard dictionary will have all of the English language words, plus all the common phrases and then you would add to that and modify it as you grow with the stenographer and as you enter different domains, so you might for example have a different dictionary if you’re doing a court reporting case than when you’re actually in a college situation transcribing a professor’s notes for medical school, for example. And even then you might have different dictionaries for say, programming in Java versus programming in Python, right, and that’s something that’s really interesting about this, right now there are really only professional stenographers, then everyone else.
Tim: At that price?
Joshua: At that $10,000 price and that level of commitment, maybe great to type at 225 words a minute but I’d be happy with 120 also or even 100.
Joshua: So there’s really not much in between and that’s I think where the biggest potential is, for people like me and you and folks watching this who probably spend a lot of time in front of computer to learn a faster and more efficient, more customizable way of typing, that is almost certainly less stressful on your body than a standard keyboard.
Tim: To be clear, you’re not a stenographer yourself?
Joshua: No. So I have programmed the software that runs these things. I know how to build them and build the circuitry. I’ve not put in the time yet to actually learn stenography. What I’m hoping though and from everything I can tell from other people watching other people learn is, I think that I can get to be a better typist, a faster typist, a more efficient typist and about the time it will take me to convert from a QWERTY keyboard to a Dvorak or Colemak keyboard, which I don’t know those either, but I’ve seen people learn them. So, a couple of months to really come up to speed, still a level I’d be very happy with.
Tim: Talk about the hardware you’ve got, that you are actually holding? Is this like laminated bamboo?
Joshua: This is not laminated, it’s – well, yeah, in the end, the manufacturer bamboo boards, yes they laminate them but there’s no coating on this other than wood finish. My collaborator Kurt Mottweiler built this first prototype. You will see it has an LCD display. It’s just going to be a 16 character by two-row display. It’s missing two keys here. This prototype here is the final physical layout and sizing of the keyboard, obviously the back plane is not the keyboard. We’re still lying out the electronics and what not but have some proofs of concept there. The keys are pretty straightforward. This entire top row is actually one key, logically, these two keys are one key, these two keys are one key, so that leaves – the rest of the keys are individual, this side of the keyboard, so where my left hand would rest does the initial set of consonants, my thumbs deal with the vowels and these four keys and my right hand deals with the final set of consonants, so to make a phonetic chord, I would just hear the sound and then translate into those initial consonant vowel, final consonant and go from there. So I could hear a word that I have never heard before, I don’t know how to spell it, I don’t know what it means, and still properly translate it here, so it kind of takes spelling out of the equation which is probably a bonus for a lot of people.
Tim: What were the final materials?
Joshua: The materials will be..
Tim: Pretty good representative?
Joshua: Yeah, this is very representative. So it will be bamboo case. The case will look a little bit different in size and dimension than this. These are machined aluminum keys that have been – these have been brushed, but I think the final will be blasted and then anodized. This is actually very representative of what the keys will look like in the end. There’s some blemishes here that won’t be on the final. These were handmade. The key switches – anybody familiar with the keyboard industry who probably recognizes this as a Cherry MX Red. This is what’s in our prototype, but what we are actually using and you can see that it has this crosshair fitting, that’s very difficult to manufacture for, and they’re in short supply, so we are actually going with a company called Matias out of Canada and this is a different sort of key switch. And Matias has been great to work with. They are making a special key switch just for us and we are buying a whole bunch of them, what’s called a quiet linear switch, meaning that there’s no tactile bump in there and it’s completely quiet, which is what most stenographers look like. We will also have the option for some tactile feedback and if you really want the loud clicky, we will get that to you too. That will be one of the options.
Tim: How big is the market for stenography keyboards?
Joshua: It’s small. So the market for stenography, currently there are about 30,000 professional stenographers. We’ll soon reach a lot of them, I think. What we are really hoping is to broaden the market to anybody that uses a computer in large quantity time chunks. So I’m certainly in that market, you’re probably in that market, the real trick though is teaching people how to use it. It’s a good time commitment. To that end we’re partnering with one of the biggest online educators in this field in stenography, the owner of that company is really excited about the projects. I need to reconnect with him soon to talk to him about details, but he’s already onboard with helping us out and hopefully that takes the form of some educational material.