Technological advances have allowed the BlackBerry and mobile phones to become increasingly smaller, but their oft-miniscule keypads can be so frustrating that many users fail to fully utilize the computing capabilities of these devices.

California-based VKB believes it will resolve this issue with its Bluetooth Virtual Keyboard unveiled last month at the DEMO@15 exhibit in Scottsdale, Ariz. The pocket-sized device uses infrared technology to project a full-sized, 2-D keyboard onto any flat surface that communicates wirelessly with the host device.

“We turn any reasonably flat surface into an interactive environment,” said Jonathan Curtiss, VKB president.

When compared to collapsible keyboards on the market, virtual keyboards are much easier to store and offer the substantial advantage of being oblivious to spills and other environmental issues that can ruin traditional hardware solutions, Curtiss said. In addition, many collapsible keyboards are made for specific devices — to which many have to be directly connected — but Curtiss said the VKB product will be “device-agnostic” while offering the flexibility of a wireless connection.

Although the demonstrated product utilizes Bluetooth to communicate with the host device, Curtiss said the virtual keyboard could be adapted to use any kind of wireless interface in the future.

As a stand-alone accessory, the Bluetooth Virtual Keyboard is expected to have an initial retail price in the $149 to $199 range — higher than the $70 to $150 cost of a collapsible keyboard but at an “acceptable cost level,” Curtiss said. While the stand-alone accessory is expected to be VKB's primary seller initially, Curtiss said he expects the virtual-keyboard technology to be integrated into PDAs, mobile phones, tablet PCs and flat-panel monitors throughout the 2006 to 2007 time frame.

VKB's integration projects include the development of a high-tech concept car sponsored by European mobile operator Orange, Curtiss said. VKB also is working with Lufthansa and another European airline offering Wi-Fi access during flights to make the virtual-keyboard technology part of their planes' standard tray tables, with a display screen embedded in the back of the seat in front the passenger.

Curtiss said the flexibility of a wireless virtual keyboard has garnered attention from a number of enterprise markets. Industrial sectors appreciate the fact that the virtual keyboard removes concerns that pollutants in the environment will cause malfunctions. On the other end of the spectrum, hyper-sterile “clean” rooms and medical facilities recognize that traditional keyboards can be a haven for unwanted germs and dirt.

“One of our demonstrations shows that, in most medical facilities, you would be better off eating from the toilet bowl than from a keyboard because the toilet bowl is cleaned regularly,” Curtiss said.

Curtiss said the wireless virtual keyboard could be a desired application to other markets VKB has yet to tap, including public safety. A wireless virtual keyboard could help save valuable space in a first-responder vehicle equipped with a computer, as well as extending the input capability of officers beyond the vehicle.

To date, VKB has targeted the virtual keyboard for indoor applications, but Curtiss said it should be an ideal solution for outdoor applications, as well. VKB's medical product already is waterproof, so the elements should not be a problem with the keyboard-projection functionality. However, Curtiss acknowledged that VKB has not tried the virtual keyboard outdoors to determine whether raindrops on a virtual keyboard would register as a keystroke.

“From a technical standpoint, my initial thought is that I don't think that will be an issue, but that's something I'd want to test,” he said.

VKB's current commercial offering supports only arrow-based cursor movements, but Curtiss said a virtual trackpad can be included in the infrared keyboard to simulate mouse movements. In fact, VKB's prototype virtual keyboard included a trackpad, but most devices in target markets did not require the functionality, he said.

When asked about the possibility of coupling the wireless virtual keyboard with a wireless virtual screen that would allow full access to a remote computing device, Curtiss indicated that the expectation is not unrealistic.

“Give us about 12 to 18 months and get back to me,” he said.