You may have seen our previous coverage of the Spike Kickstart project from SoloMatrix which aims at giving your iPhone (4 or 4S) a physical keyboard like you can find on Blackberry phones. The concept is appealing to pretty much anyone who does a fair amount of typing – email and texting come to mind, but note-taking and other such activities are also legitimate reasons for wanting a faster way to input text.

I met the inventor of the Spike 1 and Spike 2 keyboards earlier today (Robert Solomon), and I was given the opportunity to test drive a prototype of the Spike 1, and look at a Spike 2 prototype. If you are not familiar with those models, the difference is that Spike 2 has a more convenient way to get rid of the keyboard, when not in use.

If you need a refresher, here’s the pitch from SoloMatrix:

Typing with a physical keyboard makes an obvious difference in terms of typing speed and error rate, so SoloMatrix does deliver here. The keyboard works as one would expect. At the moment, the SoloMatrix team is still tweaking the key pressure and design details, but the technical aspect is sound and works. The goal is to have a keyboard that could be compared to the best out there: blackberry. SoloMatrix isn’t quite there yet, but so far, this is very promising.

Making this work isn’t as simple as you may think. Most people assume that depressing the keys simply push some kind of capacitive surface against the screen, but this wouldn’t work because they virtual keyboard can change radically depending on the situation. Switching to numbers/special characters is an obvious one.

Here’s the contact surface with the display. The magnets are the little grey dots on the right

To work around this, the SoloMatrix has created a programmable capacitive contact surface that can adapt to any virtual keyboard changes. This is really smart, and the whole setup works well because the physical keyboard covers the same surface that would be occupied by the virtual one anyway. If you need to access the whole screen, just flip the keyboard on the side, and you have access. The Physical keyboard is held in place by a few small magnets. I did not have time to test all the corner cases, but I was able to take notes and use special characters without any issues.

The whole screen can be easily accessible

The interesting part with the Spike keyboard is that it is also a case. Given that many people buy a case to protect their otherwise brittle iPhone 4/4S, SoloMatrix plans to price the most affordable version of the keyboard for $35 or so ($20 for early orders), which would be equivalent to a fancy case. In the future, they told me that they were considering adding high-end features such as a battery pack.

In any case, this project isn’t out of the woods yet, and until the first units hit in September, the team may need additional help, which is why their Kickstarter page is still active. If you are not familiar with Kickstarter, it is a funding platform in which anyone can support a project that they like.

What do you think? Are you interested in having a optional physical keyboard for your iPhone 4/4S? Would that justify using a case that makes the iPhone thicker? For non-iPhone users, here’s the good news: the same technology can also be used on most modern capacitive displays.

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