Monday, March 25, 2013

20 questions with the fastest man on Earth: Cheng Wei Chang

Cheng Wei Chang, world record holder for the fastest texting on Earth
On August 11, 2012, Cheng Wei Chang (Wei is pronounced "way"), from Singapore, broke the world record in texting using an input method called MessagEase. He typed the Guinness World Record texting phrase in 23.8 seconds, which is 80.7 WPM, and on the MessagEase website, he's clocked at 83.6 WPM. This man can text faster than anybody else on the planet.

Cheng Wei let me interview him, and I found him to be a friendly person and very personable. He's also extremely knowledgeable about tons of different kinds of input methods. Since I'm fascinated with smart phone inputting techniques, I found his discussions fascinating. He's also very humble for achieving something that no human has ever done before, which is texting non-predictively 80+ WPM on a cell phone, with perfect accuracy. I can almost text 40 WPM on my cell phone, and I'm planning a town parade as soon as I hit 40 WPM. So, it's mind boggling to me that this guy can text faster on a cell phone than 99% of the population can type on a full keyboard, and faster than 100% of the population can text on a cell phone, and all he did was post a short YouTube video and then went back to his studies and computer programming.

I was very curious about what made this guy tick. Here's my interview of 20 questions with him:

1. Could you tell me how you became so fast of a texter that you beat the world record?
Since I was young I have learnt to touch type using the qwerty keyboard. I'm rather competent in it, typing at an average 80 WPM to maximum of 100 WPM, but I'm nowhere near the 200 WPM world record. As I got my first Android phone which was Motorola XT720, I started to realise that typing on the phone was indeed pretty frustrating with the standard keyboard. Therefore I tried to keep a lookout for other keyboards.

My friend recommended SlideIt, which is similar to Swype and I am pretty impressed by its ability to guess the words so accurately. It was really cool when I started using it. But as time went by, I realised there were multiple occasions where it guessed the words wrongly and I got frustrated once again, in particular it wasn't suitable for typing shorthand that adds fun to short messages.

The next keyboard I came across was TouchPal. It has a reasonable dictionary correction and what I liked was that I can access symbols and numbers just by sliding up or down on some of the keys without having to key in "shift". I felt sliding in this way is a good way to make full use of  the touchscreen capability in a different flavor to Swype (this sliding concept was used to a higher level in MessagEase). It also features an edit mode that allows users to perform useful functions such as selecting, moving the cursor, copy, paste etc. Moreover it shines in typing Chinese and is still my favorite so far for Chinese.

Then I got to know of a revolutionary inputting technology called 8pen. I was pretty fascinated by it as well. I somehow thought that if I mastered it, I could potentially be able to input without looking. I indeed mastered it to a certain level that I could type simple short messages without looking, but the problem in it was that my thumb became sore afterwards. It is way too slow and tiring. But I appreciate the designer for coming out with a revolutionary keyboard, but too bad it is not efficient.

Continuing on my lookout, I chanced upon MessagEase while searching for the fastest android keyboard. After giving it a try, I realised it is exactly what I wanted. I can type any character without searching through tables after tables!

At first I learnt the basics by playing the MessagEase game, but soon I realised it got repetitive, so I proceeded to train using TypingDroid which has more words to type and it forces me to type each character correctly and buzzes me whenever there is a mistake. In this sense I can really master typing without looking as it actually alerts me when there is an error.

Still it is quite difficult to achieve pure blind typing, I will have to realign once in a while by looking to see that I am not too far off from the home position. But I am pretty satisfied I can text using MessagEase while I jog using one finger without much concentration as compared to all other keyboard out there.

I used it very frequently since 2 to 3 years ago. Somehow I just wasn't able to get pass 60 WPM in the MessagEase game. After switching to Samsung Galaxy S III recently, it has a much faster processor and a bigger screen. With the bigger screen, I can text using two fingers to achieve better speed. And soon, I got faster and faster and eventually ranked 1st in the game. There was this review on Android Tapp that gave MessagEase an ignorant and unfair rating. I was quite frustrated and decide to make a video showing how fast MessagEase really is. I broke the record about a week after I got my new Samsung Galaxy S III.

I think it is because I am a programmer and frequently write code, that made MessagEase my number one keyboard. Otherwise, I wouldn't have mind using SwiftKey. So I guess this explains the popularity among most people too. They will try to think if the learning curve is worth it.

Hacker's Keyboard is currently the keyboard that can type everything. But MessagEase can type nearly everything, fast. Hopefully eventually MessagEase can type everything on the keyboard like the function keys etc, so that it is the perfect keyboard when used in conjunction with TeamViewer or ConnectBot.

2. I also use MessagEase, and I like typing with MessagEase because I'm a control freak, and I don't like it when predictive texting messes me up. But I'm guessing you have a different reason. Why do you like MessagEase?
Oh, actually MessagEase is number one to me because I can code with it. Otherwise, for a non-coder, I would recommend SwiftKey. So, in some sense, I am not the perfect advertiser for MessagEase. I like to remote desktop, so MessagEase is perfect for someone like me. So I guess remote controlling of a computer would be a strong reason for choosing MessagEase, because I don't think any text prediction will work while remoting.

3. If you had a lot of time and a big budget and staff, what computer program would you make?
If I had money, I would try to deal with problems in the third world countries first. I think many things I had always wanted to do have already been handled by someone already. In the past I tried making my own note taking software, public transport path finders. I think maybe I would be particularly interested in developing autonomous robots that can do all the menial tasks like housework and dirty jobs. Somehow I feel there is not much lacking in the world now.

4. From what I know about Singapore, the country is very progressive, and really encourages intelligent and ambitious people. Do you think that living in Singapore helped you with speed?
I would say people in Singapore are diligent and have a better level of education thanks to our government who made it compulsory for children to undergo basic education. So it is more appropriate to say we are given the chance to nurture our intelligence compared to people around the world. I think we are still on our way to becoming more ambitious. Many Singaporeans tend to stick to the norm within their comfort zone and don't like to take risk. But definitely living in Singapore has crafted me into who I am, the distinct quality that enabled me to get the world record.

5. A lot of my friends from Singapore and Malaysia can speak a lot of languages. How many languages can you speak?
My first language is English, and my second language is Mandarin Chinese. Chinese people usually also know some dialect, and mine is Teochew. So I speak three languages.

6. And, do you think that speaking multiple languages has impacted your ability to text quickly?
I can't think of any relation with my texting speed, but I think as a programmer, it helps as I frequently learn new programming languages.

7. What's your texting speed in Chinese versus English?
I guess my Chinese typing speed is around 40 WPM. I used pinyin to type Chinese. There isn't a one-to-one mapping between pinyin and Chinese characters. So, choosing from a list is inevitable. But the guessing by the computer is impressive. And the technique for typing fast in Chinese is to type longer phrases to let the computer guess the context. Depending on the context, the speed of typing varies, similar to dictionary-based typing. On Android, I use TouchPal which has an additional stroke filtering function that makes typing Chinese easier than on the computer.

8. Do people ever watch you texting in public, like on the train, and make comments about how fast you are?
I don't know, but my friends are impressed. But still, only one friend is using MessagEase now.

9. How fast can you type on a regular keyboard?
On the keyboard around 80 to 100 WPM. On Android is 50 to 80 using MessagEase. Tried using several apps to test. But 80 WPM was only achievable in MessagEase Game. Usually I got around 60 WPM using myTextSpeed.

10. What advice would you give to other people who want to learn how to text fast?
I wrote some pointers on how to type using two thumbs on a Facebook comment previously (see link below). I recommend a phone that has a fast processor and large screen size like Samsung Galaxy S III. How fast a person can type depends on how strong is the desire to type fast. I like to excel in things I have chance to excel exceptionally on, and this is one of them.

11. Could I get some background information on you? I'm wondering if you could tell a couple of stories that help to illustrate your personality.
I am someone who is particularly inclined in mathematics, sciences and computer related stuffs, but languages wasn't as good.

I frequently like to think out of the box and get pretty pissed off with unreasonable traditions.

I like to self-teach myself, such as playing the piano, guitar. I believe that living in the age of Google I can learn just about anything myself.

I like to excel in areas I felt I am good at. I love solving puzzles in my free time. Using my programming knowledge to create tools to solve my everyday problems.

I am currently in my last year, doing my PhD in computational biology and data mining from biological data.

I am a Buddhist practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism under Soka Gakkai International, which is to me, the world's greatest philosophy.

12. What do you plan to do with your PhD in computational biology?
Carry on researching and learn more from biological data. Not much plans yet, but definitely a meaningful job.

13. Are you related to the Taiwanese baseball player, who has the same name as you?
Is there? I think there were quite a number of people on the internet sharing the same Chinese transliteration as me. But I guess my Chinese characters should be unique.

14. So what are the Chinese characters of your name?
钟清玮

15. I have a theory that fast typing or texting is very related to fast thinking. Do you think this is true, and do you think that you think quickly, too?
I think so. When I am wide awake, I can text much faster. I think some sort of overclocking of my brain took place when I was trying for the world record, it affects the tempo of your finger's movement.

16. As of today, your world record has only been viewed 164 times on YouTube. Why do you think that something that significant has been largely overlooked so far?
I think unless people are speed freaks, they wouldn't care who is the fastest texter. So far SwiftKey definitely holds the best record for texting using dictionary. I think to many people, it is the regular everyday typing comfort that matters. Text prediction works for many people most of the time, so they would rather crown SwiftKey as the champion.

17. Would you be open to competing in a world record texting competition to validate your record? Or are you trying to keep a low profile?
Possibly. For the sake of MessagEase. But I think the runner ups are pretty competitive, so I don't think I can beat them now.

18.     What other input methods do you think are cool?
  • TouchPal (best for typing Chinese so far)
  • SwiftKey (best prediction)
  • Kii (multiple languages, text prediction similar to SwiftKey)
  • Swype/SlideIt (Swyping is cool)
  • 8pen (interesting though lack efficiency)
  • Hacker's Keyboard (you can type everything including function keys)
19. What is your prediction for the future of input methods, 10 to 20 years in the future
I have no idea. I think possibly once chips get implanted in the brain anything is possible

20. My female readers will want to know if you're single and how old you are.
Currently single, and 28.

There you have it, probably the most eligible bachelor in the world. He's also a really nice guy, he's super smart, he thinks quickly, and a couple years from now when he graduates with his doctorate degree and gets a good job, he's going to be rich.

In today's computerized world, texting is even more relevant than typing, or any other kind of speed record, like the 100 meter dash, so that's why I declared Cheng Wei the fastest man alive.

The current Guinness Worlds Records phrase for texting is: "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human." This phrase is exactly 160 characters, which is the standard maximum size for a text message. The phrase uses 21 of the 26 letters in the alphabet, and it has a few capital letters, punctuation symbols, and a couple rare words that aren't in most dictionaries, so that's why it's a great world record phrase.

The record on the Guinness website is 25.94 seconds, which Cheng Wei broke by a couple of seconds. That old record was with predictive text, which means that they didn't have to type every one of the characters correctly, and the software made up for their mistakes. But, there's a huge problem with a predictive texting reord, and the problem is that eventually an input method in the near future is going to predict that you want to type the whole world record sentence, and so you'll only need to press one button.

How to break Swype's predictive texting world record using SwiftKey
I used this method, and I was able to get 10.43 seconds. It only took about 10 minutes of practicing, so it's easy to do. I'm sure Cheng Wei would be able to do it in about 5 seconds.
  • Get a fresh install of SwiftKey (the free version works for this)
  • Make a new Twitter account, and tweet these phrases: "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they" and "of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human." (Twitter limits you to 140 characters)
  • On SwiftKey, choose to only learn from your Twitter account, and wait until it's done syncronizing.
  • Start typing the Guinness phrase with SwiftKey. You have to correct "razor - toothed" to "razor-toothed," and you have to keep typing in the first word "The," but after only about ten times, SwiftKey will predict every single word. Then you just have to press the buttons of the words that SwiftKey predicts. You still have to press a period for the end of the sentences, but that shouldn't be too big of a deal.
  • Post your video to YouTube, claiming that you have the fastest predictive texting record in the world.
The problem with a predictive texting world record
The folks at Guinness have a big problem with their current world record for predictive texting, which is currently held by Swype. The problem is that eventually, someone's going to build an app that predicts the entire sentence, and then it's just a race to press one button. It's bad enough that SwiftKey's latest version can predict all the words of two entire sentences with only a little training.

I suggest that Guinness use the following categories instead:
  • Old-school texting where you press the "2" key once for an A, twice for a B, three times for a C (currently 34.65 seconds)
  • Non-predictive input on a cell phone (currently held by Cheng Wei at 23.8 seconds)
  • Non-predictive input on a tablet
  • Retire the current Swype predictive texting record, and chalk it up as a Guinness oversight and failure, since eventually the record will be reduced to the time it takes to press one button, which will be about 1/9th of a second.
I tried really hard to come up with a predictive texting testing methodology. "You have to press at least half of the characters correctly." "Autocorrect can only correct half of the words." "You have to press as many buttons as there are letters in the test." Unfortunately, I don't think any of those will work, and I think there's no way to come up with a predictive texting metric that can't be easily manipulated.

4 comments:

  1. Great interview.
    Yes, processor is very important factor here. I use SGSII, and I always felt that I could've gone way faster and could get closer to Cheng if only SGSII sometimes didn't start lagging when I tried to to faster. I don't know why he does not try to surpass his score though, I know he still can.

    About the thinking speed, could not agree more. When I start making a lot of typos, I know that I need rest. :p

    -Amit

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for this excellent vignette of our MessagEase record holder! I also picked up a tip that, maybe, "TypingDroid" could be a useful exercise app for increasing facility and speed. I am experiencing technical problems currently with the ME Speed Game (not registering characters) and am looking for an alternative.

    Ken

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great article. Now where can we find TypingDroid? It's not in the Play store.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Instead of typingdroid, you can try mytextspeed too as an alternative typing practice.
    -Cheng Wei

    ReplyDelete

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