VKB’s virtual keyboard is perfect for the medical market – it can be used on any sterile surface, making it very easy to clean.Amichai Turim, co-founder and CTO of Jerusalem start-up VKB, glances at the alphabetical keyboard on his cell phone disparagingly. “After you reach a certain point, you just get fed up typing messages on these tiny buttons,” he says. He is right.

Typing words into either a cellular phone or a PDA is time-consuming and laborious at the best of times, and at the worst, in this era of instant communication, annoying and tedious. Moreover, as the pressure is on manufacturers to create smaller and smaller electronic items with more and more functionality, so the keyboard too is constantly shrinking in size.

Turim believes he has the answer. VKB has developed a virtual keyboard that enables mobile communication device users to project an infra red image of a normal-sized Qwerty keyboard onto any flat surface, and type in naturally whatever information is required. The $199 virtual keyboard, which employs laser technology, can be used anywhere, from a train, to a plane, to a company booth, a factory, or even an operating theater.

Turim demonstrates. He attaches a small infrared unit to his PDA and projects the image of a keyboard onto the café table before him. Using the virtual keys laid out on the cream surface he types a message into his PDA. With every letter he touches, the unit communicates the information by wire or radio to the mobile device. It also gives a satisfying little click, like the click you hear when you type on a normal keyboard. It is a comfortable, if initially disconcerting, experience and far better than using the small keypad usually provided. “People get used to it after about 10 or 15 minutes,” Turim tells ISRAEL21c.

At present the infrared device is a stand-alone unit, smaller in size and weight than a usual cell phone, which is connected to the mobile device through a wire. In the future, says 41-year-old Turim, the technology will be embedded into the mobile device, making the virtual keyboard experience even more streamline.

VKB was founded in Delaware in August 2000 by Turim and his partner, Boaz Arnon. Research and development is carried out at Givat Shaul on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Seed money came from US-Israeli venture capital company, Argoquest, which invested $3.5 million in the company. Three years later, in October 2003, the company raised a further $3million from private investors including entrepreneur Harris Toib. The same investors took part in an additional round this August, raising $4.5 million in capital for the company.

VKB demonstrated the first prototype of its virtual keyboard at the Comdex exhibition in Las Vegas, inviting selected companies to examine the product only after they agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement. As product development continued, the company began to demonstrate the virtual keyboard openly, attracting great interest and attention.

In May 2002, the company got its first real breakthrough, when multinational giant Siemens agreed to handle European sales for the keyboard, and its subsidiary, Siemens Procurement & Logistics Services (SPLS) became the exclusive distributor of the keyboard in Germany. Under the terms of the agreement, Siemens invested a small sum of money in engineering.

The following year, VKB attracted the attention of high-tech consulting company Uzia Initiative and Management (UIM), which was set up by veteran entrepreneur Uzia Galil, founder of Elron.

“We thought VKB was one of the most innovative and useful technologies for consumer electronics that we had seen in recent years,” says Amit Menipaz, the vice president of UIM. “Portable devices today are becoming smaller and smaller, but offer increasing functionality. The biggest bottlenecks are inputting and outputting. We looked at the VKB technology and saw how fantastic it was. It offers a full size keyboard that fits into your pocket. It is light, doesn’t break and doesn’t get dirty. It works everywhere you need it.”

UIM introduced VKB to Hong Kong based telecom giant, Hutchison Whampoa, which was looking for innovative products that could help differentiate i-Tech, a division of Hutchison Harbour Ring, a manufacturer of telecommunication accessories and consumer electronics. Hutchison was impressed by the small 15 man start-up, and shortly afterwards VKB signed a licensing agreement with Harbour Ring.

Hutchison released its first virtual keyboard to the UK market in August and the response has been good. Sales have now begun in Japan, and will follow in Europe, and the US. By the end of this year, Jonathan Curtiss, VKB’s president, says he expects to sell up to 10,000 units. By the end of 2005, he anticipates that sales will reach $5m. or more. Break even point will come towards the end of 2005 or the start of 2006.

“The real ramp up in sales will come in 2006 as we incorporate our technology into a much broader range of products in a variety of markets,” Curtiss predicts. Siemens is also hoping to launch its own virtual keyboard in the near future, and VKB has signed additional licensing and component agreements with a number of other manufacturers.

The idea of a virtual keyboard has sparked a great deal of interest, but few companies have managed to transform the concept into reality. Though VKB has started selling in the sexy, but unpredictable, consumer electronics market, Curtiss believes that it will take some time before this market develops its full potential. “This is a strange technology. It sounds very wow and exciting, but it is difficult for people to get used to the idea,” he admits.

Instead, he expects that VKB’s real growth will come in other sectors, specifically the medical, industrial, and automotive markets. “Our core technology has applications in areas that are clean, dirty, mobile, and small, or where people need input capability but don’t have the physical conditions that allow it,” explains Curtiss.

In the medical market, for instance, keyboards are often needed in sterile environments. Until now, the only answer was to cover the keyboard in a protective membrane which had to be replaced during every operation. Each membrane costs $100, making maintenance extremely expensive. VKB’s virtual keyboard, on the other hand, can be used on any sterile surface, making it very easy to clean. Curtiss notes that there has been interest in the device from a number of manufacturers who build hospital operating theaters, and sales in this sector are expected to begin during the second quarter of 2005.

“There are 11 million keyboards in sterile or clean areas in the US alone. These are big disease carriers,” says Curtiss. “This is a substantial market for us.”

Curtiss also expects to see growth in another exciting field – projected dynamic display. VKB has already signed an agreement with a large US partner in this sector and is now working with toy manufacturers to create virtual games such as chess or draughts, where players can move virtual pieces on a virtual board. Curtiss believes games like this could be on the market by 2006.

In addition, he anticipates interest in the set top box market, where users need a keyboard, but do not wish to introduce a usual one to their living room. The first products in this sector are expected in 12 to 18 months.

“The potential of this technology is huge,” admits Turim. “You can replace anything that needs a connection between humans and computers.”

VKB’s primary job now is marketing and sales. The company plans to take on five more employees and to step up sales efforts throughout the world. “VKB has gone through the hard development stage and we have now transformed ourselves into a product company,” says Curtiss.