#Asia Typing Chinese on a smartwatch seems insane. This startup might’ve figured out a way

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ibeezi-keyboard-header2

The first thing I thought when I saw iBeezi demoed was, “Sure, but why?”

The app works as a Chinese-language keyboard for smartwatches. A good amount of engineering – both in tech and linguistics – went into the software, which claims to offer a quick, highly accurate way to get Chinese text on screen.

But to see value in iBeezi, you have to first accept its basic premise: that people want to write on their smartwatches.

Yes, typing on a 1.3-inch screen is an actual thing that people want to do

“Voice commands are becoming increasingly accurate and efficient,” says Alexis Van Gestel, iBeezi CEO. “Even so, there are – and there will probably always remain – a number of use-cases in which the use of voice is not advised or possible: business meetings, school hours, crowded and loud places, etc.”

“A communication device, whether that be a smartphone or a wearable, should at least have one communication tool that can be used in any situation,” he adds.

If the more developed English-language smartwatch world is any guide, then there are some pretty solid signs that people are interested in typing messages, at least simple ones, on their watches.

As early as 2013, keyboard apps were being developed for the (at the time, very few) smartwatch owners in the US and Europe. Most relied on some kind of scaled-down QWERTY keyboard, using swiping or gestures to move between sets of keys.

Minuum keyboard, via Minuum.com

Minuum keyboard, via Minuum.com

The Minuum keyboard app, for example, condenses the QWERTY keyboard down into a thin bar at the bottom of the watch face and relies on a word suggestion feature to aid users. As the Minuum website says, echoing Alexis, “when you’re on a bus, in class, or in a meeting, talking to your wrist just doesn’t make sense.”

If you accept the idea that people actually want to do this, then it’s possible to think that the folks at iBeezi might be onto something.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Typing Chinese characters on a smartphone or computer keyboard is typically done using pinyin, the primary romanization system for the language. The Chinese character 中, for example, is pronounced “zhōng.” To write it, a user would simply type z-h-o-n-g, and then select 中.

But z-h-o-n-g is also 重, and 种, and dozens of other homophones. On a computer or smartphone screen, it’s easy enough to simply select the character you want from a list. But on a smartwatch, the system would quickly fall apart.

So the folks at iBeezi devised a distinct, non-keyboard-based entry method. Their circle-based model lets users tap away at the pinyin letters they are vying for, but do so in groups, instead of each letter at a time. A built-in character predictor helps facilitate the process, and users are also guided by the circles’ colors.

As could be expected with any kind of non-standard keyboard, there’s certainly a learning curve. We’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the video above, and say that the user was intentionally going a bit slow so we could see how the system works.

“The speed of encoding one sentence using the iBeezi keyboard in touch mode depends on how well one masters the method,” says Alexis.

Also, in the video, the user was tapping each circle. According to Alexis, the tap method will soon be replaced by the ability to swipe between circles, which should also improve speed.

Tapping into a market

The iBeezi team is quick to point out that the typing method also works for English. But while there are already a number of English-language smartwatch keyboards – many of which don’t reinvent the wheel to the same extent as iBeezi – they are still without a notable competitor in Chinese. And as China’s smartwatch market begins to take off, that could be a serious advantage.

The company is composed of 10 people, working in Belgium, Hong Kong, and Beijing. They received a seed round of funding in 2013 to develop the application and released the first iBeezi smartwatch app in August of this year. It is currently only available on Android Wear, but if you’re particularly adventurous and want to try it out on your smartphone, they’ve also released versions for Android and iOS.

The iBeezi team is targeting ordinary smartwatch owners as well as licensing the keyboard tech to smartphone manufacturers and app developers, who then integrate it into their devices and software. The keyboard is available on several Chinese app stores and the Google Play Store for free.

Being optimistic about iBeezi requires you to first say “yes” to a few questions: Do people want to type in Chinese on smartwatches? Is this circle-based method an efficient way to do that?

If you accept those premises, then iBeezi is certainly worth trying out. If not, then you’ll just have to speak your voice commands extra quietly during meetings.

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