A device attempts to elevate the iPad's keyboard

By Rachel Metz

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Dec. 15, 2011 photo, Steven Isaac, CEO of TouchFire, types on his iPad using his first product, a silicone overlay that goes on top of the device's virtual keyboard and allows typing that feels like physical keys, is shown in Seattle. Development of the product was funded with a KickStarter.com campaign.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Even if you love the iPad, you're probably not keen to write your next novel using its on-screen virtual keyboard. You may not be thrilled to type up a lengthy email with it, either.

Steve Isaac felt the same way. So the Seattle-based software designer got to work on a way to make the iPad easier to type on. Using a stretchy silicone, he invented a keyboard that sits atop the tablet's on-screen keyboard when the device is turned on its side. He called it, TouchFire.

Isaac, who worked on an early tablet at computing startup Go in the '90s, isn't unique in dreaming up this type of device. But his invention has garnered intense support on Kickstarter — a website where entrepreneurs and artists solicit funding for their projects and often give rewards in exchange, such as a limited-edition poster or first version of a product.

In Isaac's case, he turned to the site to raise money to transform his prototype into a real device, offering the first run of TouchFires to Kickstarter backers. His effort raised $201,400 by the time it ended last week. That was more than 20 times the $10,000 that he and his business partner had hoped to snag.

The TouchFire's birth as a consumer product shows the growing importance of sites such as Kickstarter. They offer a new way to finance bright ideas and usher them to the masses. Kickstarter visitors can search through a bevy of proposals for everything from graphic novels to consumer electronics, coming from creators who must meet their stated funding goal in a specified period of time in order to actually use the money.

About 45 percent of the projects meet or exceed their goals, Kickstarter said. This year, site visitors pledged about $79 million to projects that either succeeded, including Isaac's, or were still in the process of soliciting funds.

The response to the TouchFire in particular indicates that, despite the tough economy, people are interested in shelling out for ideas they believe in — something that benefits both consumers and entrepreneurs.

"It sure makes us feel very good about the potential for this project and the demand for this project," Isaac says.

It's validation for a year and a half's worth of work. Not long after the iPad came out in April 2010, Isaac started fashioning prototypes by cutting up transparent silicone laptop keyboard covers (the kind you use to protect a laptop's keyboard from dirt) and thin sheets of silicone.

He had a number of stipulations for the TouchFire: It should somehow work with the iPad's existing on-screen keyboard and have springy "keys" that you could actually feel. It had to be small, light and unobtrusive. It needed to respond to your finger taps, but, as on a hardware keyboard, be insensitive enough that you could rest your fingers on the keys without triggering the typing of random letters.

Last September, he connected with Brad Melmon, an industrial designer who was also based in Seattle. The duo refined Isaac's original idea and created the TouchFire company together.

A TouchFire prototype Isaac recently brought to The Associated Press' San Francisco office looked deceptively simple. On the surface, it appeared to be just a flexible keyboard cover with some rigid plastic on the sides.

But a closer look revealed small bumps on the underside of the keypad's silicone keys — bumps that provide typing fingers with the proper amount of resistance. Magnets on the sides and the bottom adhere it to the magnetic portions of the face of the iPad 2, allowing it to sit right on top of the on-screen virtual keyboard without sliding around. If you use the original iPad, a non-slip layer on the bottom of the TouchFire helps keep it in place.

Typing with it was fairly comfortable, though it would take some getting used to its squishy feel (a more apt name might be SquishyType).

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