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Researchers at the University of Swansea have come up with a new interface for pocket calculators that they say will make it even easier for people to solve difficult sums.

Instead of having to work out which order to input numbers, users of the prototype device need only transcribe the calculation as it appears on paper, and the calculator will do the rest, New Scientist reports. Inventor Harold Thimbleby explains that people get confused about the order they need to put information in to normal, button-based calculators, and that his alternative is more intuitive.

The calculator can also tackle problems that would be next to impossible to solve on a normal number-cruncher. For example, if a user enters the problem: x!=5040, Thimbleby's machine would be able to calculate x.

It uses character recognition software and the relative positions of the characters to work out what the calculation is. So users can enter a calculation just as it appears on paper, and the computer will work out what it means. Once the computer has "recognised" the characters, the user can move or amend them as needed.

Thimbleby and his team asked nine people to work out a variety of sums involving difficult bits of the calculator, like the brackets, square root functions and powers. He was surprised to discover that with standard calculators they managed to get the wrong answer 51 per cent of the time. For example, he says, to work out what 4 x -5 is, people tend to key in 4 x - 5, and so end up with the result -1.

However, using the input device he and his team came up with, the error rate dropped to 19 per cent.

Thimbleby suggests the device could be used as a teaching aid in the classroom. Plugged into an interactive whiteboard, it could tell a student if the answer proposed was correct, for example. ®

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