Hitachi has developed a prototype system that gives the ability to input simple messages into a computer to those unable to type.
The system, called Mobile Den-no-shin, works with a custom computer that resembles a tablet PC and uses a single push-button for input.
It is a relatively slow process and so is best suited for short messages, said Kengo Ando, an IT consultant working at Hitachi's Ubiquitous Platform Group, who was demonstrating the system at the Hitachi IT Convention in Tokyo.
He expects it to be used by people who cannot operate a computer keyboard, and to highlight that, a picture of the system in use showed an injured hospital patient typing out a message using the push button.
On the computer screen, a grid of Japanese hiragana characters is displayed in a block of 10 columns and five rows. Pushing the button once starts the system cycling through each of the columns highlighting groups of five characters in turn.
When the column with the desired character is reached the user is required to push the button again. The system then cycles through each of the five characters in the column highlighting them one-by-one and the user can select a character by pressing the button again.
As each character is selected it is typed into a message area that sits above the on-screen keyboard on the display. The system also supports input of Japanese katakana characters, the Roman alphabet, numbers and Chinese characters used in Japan.
Users can adjust the speed of the scanning cycle to between 0.5 seconds and 4.0 seconds, and the size of the on-screen font can also be changed. To make text input easier a number of preprogrammed messages, such as "yes", "no", "hello", "good-bye", "good morning" and "I don't understand", are also accessible and organised into categories.
In addition to typing messages on the screen, the computer can also send and receive e-mail, Ando said.
The computer is based on a Transmeta's Crusoe processor and runs Midori Linux. Hitachi is still testing the system but plans to have it available in Japan by the end of this year. The price has yet to be decided but it is expected to cost around ¥400,000 (£1,980).
According to Ando, the software used in the system is based on a package that Hitachi has been selling since 1997.
The company's Den-no-shin software works with the Internet Explorer browser and adds a series of large on-screen buttons which allow users to navigate websites with a push button.
A variation of the software called Shinyuu is also available and offers a mouse-controlled keyboard, as well as mail and calendar software that has easy-to-read interfaces. It is also intended for people who find it difficult to use a conventional computer.
Martyn Williams writes for IDG News Service