Hackathon #SVtoPP Cambodia’s Flexible Khmer Keyboard

Late last year, the very first event connecting Silicon Valley and Phnom Penh was held – Hackathon #SVtoPP. At the event, 10 teams comprising of 3-5 members, all of whom were under 30, took on the challenge of creating a tech-based platform that solved a real-world problem.

One of the projects that emerged with an award was team Flexible Khmer Keyboard. While this isn’t the first time that Geeks in Cambodia is covering a Khmer Keyboard innovation, following projects like the Khmerism Keyboard or the Khmer Smart Keyboard, we’ve found that each of these keyboard innovations have their own unique features which set them apart.

For the Flexible Khmer Keyboard, it’s unique selling point is that it makes use of a dual language keyboard that allows users to type in English using Khmer phonetics before suggesting the appropriate Khmer word.

To find out more about the project, we sat down with Heng Soparinha, Chea Engkeat and Mam Chanvichay – the Flexible Khmer Keyboard team.

The following interview has been edited for clarity, flow and language.

What was the inspiration for the platform?

For starters, we knew that the Khmer Unicode keyboard is available but it’s not really easy to type in Khmer using that, so we wanted to create something that was easy for people to use. Furthermore, because the Khmer Unicode isn’t that convenient to use, we realised that many people, especially teenagers, have started to use English to type Khmer and we believe that this isn’t ideal for us as Cambodians – to be using a different language to convey our native tongue. So we wanted to help people convert the English that they type into Khmer, to encourage them to use our language more.

What are the key features of the keyboard?

I think the key feature of our keyboard is that we use English as the base language and then it suggests to users the appropriate words in Khmer ­– which also means it functions like a dual language keyboard. In other words, if you type an English word, it will compute as an English word but if you use the English alphabet to phonetically spell Khmer words, the system will automatically suggest a Khmer word for you.

This means that you only need to know how to pronounce a word in Khmer for you to be able to type it. By doing so, it will also reduce the need to press the shift key to access a large portion of the Khmer alphabet which makes it a lot easier to type.

How did you manage to develop this responsive dual setting for the keyboard?

That’s a really difficult question. We have to start by talking about our database. We created a database with Khmer words using a dictionary and then created several sequences of commonly used phrases or words that go together. So, let’s take the word “Khor” for instance. We broke this down into its alphabets and we also know that users will type K or Kh to start off.

As the user types, the processes are going on in the background to shorten the number of options available and then it goes on to suggest possible words to be paired with it.

Cool! Another key feature of the keyboard is that it is able to adapt to the writers’ style – how does this work?

When we talk about a writers’ style, we’re referring to the various words or phrases that people might use that aren’t common. For example, the names of some people. When something like this happens to the users, they’ll then be able to add the Khmer spelling and the corresponding English spelling into the dictionary for the keyboard to remember it in the future.

To do this, our keyboard layout includes an “add” function where users can add their unique words. These will then be saved in the database.

What are some ways you hope to see the keyboard developing?

The app to install the keyboard will be free when we release it and our plan for the future would be to see that this project is available on any and all devices. This will include the iOS, the Mac OS and Windows. This would be one of our main goals moving forward.

Ultimately, we want to create a platform that is so user friendly that important organsations and people all around Cambodia would use the keyboard to type. For us, we imagine that the ministry needs to produce a report in Khmer and to do that using the Khmer Unicode, it’ll take them maybe 2 hours. But using our platform, we hope that it’ll take them half that time.

How can people support the development of the keyboard?

For us right now, because we’re all fresh graduates, we’d love to have a mentor who knows the field to come on board with us and help us. On the technical side of things, it’d be great if someone who knows the coding processes for the Mac OS or the iOS joins us as well so we can start developing that side of the project.

Following your experience at the Hackathon, what advice can you give to aspiring startups?

We would tell them that the idea must be their focus. They must know what part of society they would like to impact and then develop an idea that will indeed solve the problem. This idea should also be creative and not just focused on the most common problem.

For example, a lot of people think that the biggest problem in Cambodia is the traffic jam. As a result, they aren’t looking at any other problems so we’d also encourage them to see which are the problems in society that can be solved.

Finally, we would encourage the team to capitalise on the skillsets available amongst them and delegate tasks according to who does what best.

That was our interview with the Flexible Khmer Keyboard team! It’s really interesting to see how they are using technology and various coding techniques to pair two commonly used languages together in order to make typing in Khmer easier!

If you’re interested in contributing to their project, feel free to drop an email to parinhaheng@gmail.com.

Soon enough, we’ll be talking to yet another award-winning team at the Hackathon, GuideInsider, who are creating an app for tourism in Cambodia.