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ShapeWriter Project History 

Through academic research and a start-up adventure, the ShapeWriter project pioneered a new paradigm of writing text on touch screens

[ Background | Concept and Theory | Videos | Photos | Key Attributes | People & Publications | Press | User Reviews | ShapeWriter Inc.]



1990's to 2000


IBM Almaden Research Center

Based on research since the late 1990's, researchers at the IBM Almaden Research Center published the first rigorous mathematical optimization result of touch keyboard based on the Metropolis algorithm used by scientists to understand molecule structures. Viewing each key in a stylus keyboard as an atom and using the total atomic energy function to drive the keyboard structural organization, they called their keyboard ATOMIK. The observations made in studying soft keyboard that people tend to remember letter sequence as shapes and traces and some words can be connected by gesture strokes led to the invention of shape writing.




Shumin Zhai and Per Ola Kristensson naming their prototype "SHARK"

On August 28, 2002, the first MS thesis on shape writing was completed by Per Ola Kristensson under the supervision of Dr. Shumin Zhai, then a visiting professor on sabbatical from IBM Research at Linkoping University, Sweden 

The first scientific paper on gesture keyboard  "Shorthand Writing on Stylus Keyboard" was submitted to and accepted by the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2003). The paper demonstrated the first working gesture keyboard, dubbed SHARK at the time. The paper also empirically tested and supported the cognitive theory of shape writing  - users can quickly progress from visually-guided individual letter tracing towards shape recall based stroke gesturing on keyboard.


First gesture keyboard paper publishsed at ACM CHI 2003

On April 8, 2003 the first shape writing paper was presented and the first working system publically demonstrated at ACM CHI 2003 The paper was published by ACM Press. 

On April 9, 2003 an article about shape writing appeared in the San Jose Mercury News ("Making more of handhelds") and followed by online blogs. This article was syndicated to other major news media in the United States, for example Seattle Times, Arizona Star and


The world's first gesture keyboard release

Based on research done at the IBM Almaden Research Centerthe first system paper on shape writing with detailed statistical algorithms embedding  human action laws was published at ACM UIST 2004 in October 2004. A companion video was also released. 

Also in October 2004, the first shape writing system, dubbed SHARK, was publically released by IBM AlphaWorks.  It was instantly hailed as "Text Entry Epiphany" by trial users and reviewers. It was also reported in major news media including the New York Times.




In the 2005 New Paradigms in User Computing (NPUC) Workshop Shumin Zhai presented and demonstrated SHARK to a large group of Silicon Valley researchers, designers, engineers, and technology reporters. CNET reported about the technology in real time as Shumin Zhai was presenting. After trying out the software, San Jose Mercury News columnist Mike Langberg wrote the first comprehensive review "A New Way of Writing", syndicated to many other newspapers in the US from The Miam Herald to The Seattle Times 

Later the implication of shape writing to the mobile IT industry was more broadly recognized in various media reports. Punning on the ideas of progressing from recognition to recall, BBC News call it "Total recall boosts PDA writing". The German science magazine bild der wissenschaft predicts that ShapeWriter may "revolutionize how humans interact with all sorts of electronic devices". 

Also in 2005, a paper on Elastic Stylus Keyboard was published which outlined how the underlining technology of shape writing could also be applied to automatically correct errors on touch keyboard tapping.


The first book chapter on shape writing, Introduction to shape writing, was written for a graduate text book on Text Entry Systems.



ShapeWriter Inc Beijing Office

ShapeWriter Inc was founded on IBM Research's spin-off technologies to productize ShapeWriter on mobile phones, navigators, tablets, and all other types of touch screen devices. Engineers in ShapeWriter Inc started to port and develop products on various operating systems. A YouTube video documenting their work was released in May 2007. 

In June 2007, the first PhD thesis on shape writing was publically defended by Per Ola Kristensson based on his work done under the supervision of Dr. Shumin Zhai at Linköping University and the IBM Almaden Research Center

The first research paper on shape writing commands and a paper on learning shape writing by game playing were also published in 2007.



ShapeWriter Inc engineers begin perfecting ShapeWriter technology on Windows, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone and other mobile platforms. 

In April 2008 ShapeWriter WritingPad on Android was completed and submitted to Google Android Developer Challenge. In May 2008 it was selected as one of the 50 winners among 1800 ADC entrants. 

In July 2008, iPhone WritingPad, the first implementation of ShapeWriter on iPhone, was completed and released as one of the first publically available applications in Apple's iTunes/App Store. It was enthusiastically received by the iPhone user community. Within first 24 hours, over 50 reviews were written about it. To quote a few: "I didn't expect this to work at all, but it worked perfectly" "It's so amazing how intuitive this is" "it absolutely works" "I was shocked at how easy it was to use" "I'm absolutely in love with this app" "I write faster with WritingPad than with iPhone's touch keyboard or with Blackberry's keypad" "This is one of the coolest apps I have seen" "Very impressive" "wonderful" "awesome" "fantastic" "A++++++!!!!". The iPhone WritingPad was also selected as Time's 11 must-have iPhone apps and reached a download rate of 30,000 per day. 



ShapeWriter is released on Windows, Windows Mobile, Apple iPhone and Google Android. ShapeWriter won several awards including Silicon Valley Android Developer favorite apps and Silicon Valley and China Wireless Association Emerging Leaders.




ShapeWriter's commercial applications continue to mature. ShapeWriter on Android now released with English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Swedish language databases. ShapeWriter also has additional languages including Chinese and Japanese in beta test.

In May 2010, ShapeWriter Inc was acquired by Nuance Communications, the world market leader in information input.