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Infinity ErgoDox
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The evolution and commercialization of the ErgoDox keyboard

I mentioned the ErgoDox keyboard in my article A few interesting keyboards nearly in existence…. Strictly speaking, the ErgoDox was already in existence at the time (almost exactly a year ago), but as I pointed out, it wasn’t a commercial product. The ErgoDox keyboard was originally designed by Geekhack.org user Dox (aka Dominic Beauchamp), and developed in a thread started on October 10, 2011 titled ErgoDox – Custom split ergo keyboard with input from the Geekhack community. The design was based in part on the earlier Key64 concept, which itself derives its ideas from a variety of earlier keyboards, and partly from the layout of the Kinesis Advantage keyboard (in particular the thumb cluster).

The Original ErgoDox Design
The Original ErgoDox Design

What’s amazing, considering that hundreds (maybe thousands) of ErgoDox keyboards have been sold, is that Dox was originally hoping to get 5-10 people to commit to buying it to bring down his costs. When the design was completed, and the PCB finished (the PCB design was done by geekhack user bpiphany – aka Fredrik Atmer), the design was made available for free online.

 

MassDrop “Group Buys”

MassDrop ErgoDox
MassDrop ErgoDox

A kit containing all the parts needed to assemble the keyboard was made available first via MassDrop, a site that allows users to join “Group Buys” for various products, usually hard-to-get and/or very expensive electronics, that brings down the price based on how many people join the group buy. MassDrop has had several group buys of the ErgoDox in the past couple of years, offering the circuit boards (one for each hand), components (diodes, resistors, etc.), controller board (a Teensy 2.0), key switches, key caps, cables (USB for the computer, TRRS to connect the two sides), etc. The kit also contained a case made out of layered sheets of acrylic, based on a design by geekhack user Litster (the original 3D-printed case design by Dox was too expensive on a small scale).

Even though the kit components were sourced by MassDrop, and things like setting up custom keyboard layouts were made easier (by using an online configuration tool provided by Massdrop), it was still complicated to build, requiring the soldering of 76 key switches with 76 corresponding diodes, as well as many other components (resistors, LEDs, the controller board, the USB connection, the TRRS sockets, an I/O Expander chip, etc.). Additionally, the group buys didn’t provide a custom set of key caps for the ErgoDox, only optional blank keycaps. This could be explained by the infinite configurability of the keyboard layout not lending itself to a single set up for labels on their keycaps, but that is a cop-out of sorts. If the need to solder wasn’t enough of an obstacle, the lack of available keycaps was also an obstacle to wider adoption of the keyboard. Lastly, since you need to put the keyboard together yourself, there was no warranty on the keyboard available.

 

Mechanical Keyboards and Falbatech

Falbatech gold-plated ErgoDox PCB
Falbatech gold-plated ErgoDox PCB

In addition to the occasional group buy via MassDrop, ErgoDox components were also available from various sources. PCBs could be bought at Mechanical Keyboards in the US and Falbatech in Poland. Both companies also offered various case options, although many people built their own cases, either from the original Dox 3D-printed case design, Litster’s cut acrylic design, or various other custom designs. Falbatech sells a component kit with all the bits and pieces one needs to solder to the PCBs as well, although most of the parts could also be sourced from other providers such as Digikey (although not as a kit). These alternate providers made it possible for people to assemble ErgoDox keyboards whenever they wanted (and no have to wait for a new group buy on MassDrop) and also allowed users more flexibility in how they assembled the keyboards.

As people built their own ErgoDox keyboards, many modified the design to suit their own needs. Some broke out the thumb cluster and repositioned them. Some designed custom cases, even from wood. Other worked to upgrade the PCB to support LEDs on each switch. Many variations of the keyboard can be found online in groups like Geekhack, Deskthority, and r/MechanicalKeyboards.

 

The ErgoDox EZ

ErgoDox EZ
ErgoDox EZ

Last year I pointed out that it would be nice if the keyboard was manufactured in a factory and if the company that manufactured it offered support (i.e. a warranty). For many users, this is necessary. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who noticed this problem, as a couple of Israelis, Erez Zukerman and Yaara Lancet, put together a company to manufacture and support ErgoDox keyboards (dubbed the ErgoDox EZ). The EZ version of the ErgoDox is mass-produced in a factory in China, uses an injection-molded plastic case that brings down the cost, but otherwise is exactly the same as the standard ErgoDox. The PCBs are exactly the same, and the Teensy 2.0 is still used as the controller board. That last part was surprising to me because if I was going to mass-produce a keyboard, I’d want to embed the controller into the PCB for two reasons. I’d want to remove a third-party product from the final version to reduce costs (why include their markup into my base price?), and it would reduce the risk of problems caused by their manufacturing process. If someone is buying a mass-produced product, they probably don’t expect a removable controller board from another company. Of course, keeping the Teensy 2.0 board in the final product does have one major advantage – it means the company wouldn’t need to deal with any custom programming to adapt the ErgoDox software to a new controller configuration.

Keeping things simple (the only major change being the creation of a case that can be injection molded) might also explain why nothing in the key layout was changed either. Many people complained about the ErgoDox thumb cluster, for example, as not being ideally located. A whole thread on just this topic (fixing the ergodox thumb section) has generated hundreds of messages and thousands of views.

One other curious thing done by the EZ team was not including printed keycaps. Like MassDrop, the keycaps available are all blank. My opinion is that if they are looking to expand the market for the ErgoDox beyond those who can solder it together themselves, and those who want warranties, then chances are many of those people also want printed keycaps (see my article How many keys are there on a keyboard? for a discussion of the use of blank keycaps).

The ErgoDox EZ team did a pre-sale on its web site, offering the keyboard for $180 without keycaps or $190 with blank keycaps, in the run up to its IndieGoGo campaign, where the price was raised to $215 without and $235 with keycaps (plus $30 shipping). There was some promotion on the Deskthority keyboard forum (Assembled ErgoDox with warranty available for pre-order). Before promoting their IndieGoGo campaign, they offered the $180/$190 pricing on their IndieGoGo page for those who signed up earlier, then hid those levels once they launched officially. This got them about half way through the $50,000 they need to finish their campaign, which as of today (four days later) has 26 days to go.

 

The Infinity ErgoDox

Infinity ErgoDox
Infinity ErgoDox by MassDrop

Today, just days after the ErgoDox EZ launched on IndieGoGo, MassDrop dropped a bomb of sorts – a newly redesigned ErgoDox keyboard, they’ve dubbed the Infinity ErgoDox. MassDrop previously released a keyboard called the Infinity, which was created with input from the community and the professional direction of Jacob Alexander (aka HaaTa). MassDrop has an interesting article about the creation of the Infinity for those interested in the process. MassDrop took some of the lessons learned in the creation of the Infinity, much of the feedback from the community on the original ErgoDox, and created something new.

The new model outwardly looks fairly similar to the original ErgoDox (no thumb cluster change), but when looking closer, there are some significant changes. The Teensy 2.0 is gone, replaced with a built-in controller that is closer to a Teensy 3.1 in design. Each side can actually be used independently from each other, but when combined with a USB3 cable, merges into a single device. The unit connects to the computer using a simpler USB2 cable. The new design includes one obvious change, which is the addition of a small LCD screen on both sides of the keyboard. The screen is intended to be used to show different modes of the keyboard, which layout layer is activated, etc. although the software can be modified, so the screens could be used for lots of functions.

The case is still built from layered acrylic, although the plate that holds the key switches has apparently been switched to a metal plate.

Another big change which is not actually described in the group buy description, but fleshed out in the comments, is that the keyboard supports individual per-key LEDs. The original ErgoDox only supported 3 LEDs, and all on one side of the keyboard. The new Infinity ErgoDox has room in the PCB for individual LEDs for each key, and the PCB has a built-in LED controller chip to support them. The LEDs can be individually addressed and the brighten controlled. The group buy doesn’t actually include the LEDs, which is probably why they’re not mentioned in the description, but according to the responses in the comments, the hardware support is there already. It’s possible the software support for the LEDs is not ready yet, which might also explain why that was left out of the description.

Perhaps the most important change is that all of the main components are added to the PCB during manufacturing, leaving only the switches which need to be soldered. That makes the assembly of the new Infinity ErgoDox much simpler than the original ErgoDox. If you add LEDs those will also need to be soldered, but they are not necessary to the keyboard’s operation.

 

What’s next?

I’m sure the ErgoDox EZ folk were not happy to see the Infinity ErgoDox launch four days into their campaign. It’s true that the ErgoDox EZ is the only version of the ErgoDox that so far will be available with a warranty. The Infinity ErgoDox does not include a warranty. Being only half-way through their fundraising goal (with 165 contributors, compared to the 280 the Infinity ErgoDox racked up today so far) they must be sweating a bit. They have a choice – they can continue and hope to get everyone who do not want to solder their keyboard switches, and those that want a warranty – or they scrap their current design and wait for MassDrop to release the new versions of their PCB design. MassDrop has announced that the designs for the Infinity ErgoDox will be released to the public after the product ships. The estimated shipping date is June 29, 2015 – three months from now. They could wait until the after it is shipped, get the new designs, and relaunch with the new design.

A third option, and probably the best option, would be for them to add stretch goals to their existing campaign that include many of the improvements in the Infinity ErgoDox, perhaps even other improvements, and commit to include those improvements in the final product (whose ship date is currently estimated to be December 2015). They could even simply add a stretch goal to use the Infinity ErgoDox design, and then they don’t need to make any new hardware designs, they only need to create a different case (which they still haven’t made, so requires very little additional work).

In any case, it’s fascinating to see what started out as a personal design intended for a handful of people, being the basis for products manufactured by many companies (besides the 4 companies mentioned here, there are many others that have made accessories such as wrist guards and custom keycaps for the ErgoDox). I don’t know if the ErgoDox EZ will make it to production and offer the first ErgoDox with a warranty, but if it does it will be a pretty big breakthrough for community-developed keyboard designs. The improvements implemented by MassDrop are also a breakthrough of sorts, taking community designs, improving them, and releasing the changes to the public. This is the open source software world merging into the world of hardware. About time.

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Keyboard.io
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A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence…

My last post, Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades?, got some interesting responses.

A couple of people said I was ignoring much of the progress in the past decade, citing lots of features added to keyboards like backlit keys, keys with displays built in, wireless, etc. These are all nice features, but they’re convenience features. None of those features make typing more comfortable, or reduce repetitive stress injuries. Features that do those things are ergonomic features, and were the focus of my article.

A few people said standard keyboards were just fine, so no innovation was needed. I suspect those people are still in their twenties, and haven’t realized the effect of typing on their hands yet. Stay with your straight keyboard with membrane switches and then come back and tell us in a few years which ergonomic keyboard you’ve switched to…

ErgoDox

ErgoDox Keyboard
ErgoDox Keyboard (Deskthority Wiki)

Someone also pointed out that I left out the enthusiast community, pointing out the ErgoDox keyboard and its distribution through MassDrop as an example. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the design work done by individuals and collectively through projects like the ErgoDox. However, when the easiest way to buy a product is to order it in a bundle of electronic parts that require soldering to put together, it’s not a product that most people can use. Hopefully someone will pick up the design and start mass manufacturing the keyboard, bringing down the cost, offering support, etc. making it available to a broader market.

Even so, there is nothing particularly innovative in the design, other than that the design and firmware are all open source and freely available. There are already two part keyboards, the thumb keys layout which looks interesting is almost exactly the same as the Kinesis Advantage keyboard, etc. I like the design, and it’s fairly compact, but personally I’d want one built by a company that would build it in a factory and offer support.

Keyboardio

Keyboard.io
Keyboard.io (Blog)

One hobby project which is trying to make the leap to manufactured product is Keyboardio. It started out as a project done in someone’s attic, and is now incorporated and in an incubator in San Francisco. You can see a detailed look at the various prototypes that lead up to the current design on the creator’s personal blog. This is a great example of enthusiast efforts that have the potential to make it into the market. I expect there will be a crowd-funding campaign for this keyboard soon. The design is really nice, although I don’t know what the final material will be for the case. Presumably it will be some form of plastic. If they do a crowd-funding campaign, perhaps wood will be a different tier in the campaign.

The thumb keys design is a little different than I’ve seen before, although I wonder how well that design has been tested. From an ergonomic point of view, the design is somewhat similar to the TEK keyboard (compact design without number pad, non-staggered keys angled toward each hand, space for wrists, etc.).

TREWGrip

TREWGrip Keyboard
Rear of the TREWGrip

Another interesting project is the TREWGrip. The TREWGrip is a mobile keyboard, intended to be used with mobile phones and tablets, that allows you to retain your QWERTY muscle-memory, but just shift your hands to keys behind the device. The keyboard also contains a gyroscope, allowing it to be used as an air mouse. On the front of the keyboard, you can mount your phone or tablet, and a key map is present that allows each key to light up when you press it on the reverse side.

Back in August TREWGrip launched a Kickstarter campaign, but didn’t reach its goal. However, the company was showing off its keyboard at CES in January, and they were projecting a launch sometime in the second half of 2014. The company wants to target niches like the healthcare industry, allowing doctors to take notes on their mobile device by touch-typing on the rear of their keyboard, so they can keep eye contact with patients, and don’t need to go to a computer to enter the information.

The idea of rear-typing isn’t entirely new – there was the Grippity keyboard under development back in 2008 and research from Microsoft from 2010 – but this might be the first consumer product to make it to market. From an ergonomics point of view, it’s hard to judge this without using it. It is a split keyboard, and your hands might be more naturally positioned than with some keyboards. Your hands are not propped up on a desk, which might be an advantage, although having to hold it all the time could work against it. Interestingly, at CES they were showing a version with mechanical keys. If they are targeting healthcare, however, I suspect they will stick with silicon keys that can be cleaned simply, at least for that market. The price is expected to be somewhere around $250 when it is released.

King’s Assembly

King's Assembly Prototype
King’s Assembly Prototype

There’s another keyboard that is currently in a Kickstarter campaign – King’s Assembly. Don’t ask me what the name means (it’s a gaming reference). It’s actually a combination keyboard/mouse/joystick, geared towards the gaming community. It is the first keyboard I have seen that the user can actually move on the desk to use as a mouse. Plenty of keyboards have come with built-in trackballs, trackpads, etc. but I’ve never seen one that moves itself. For gaming this seems like a very useful feature, although for productivity use it remains to be seen if it will be useful or will get in the way.

The general design is not so different from an earlier design that made it to Kickstarter, but was not funded, called Talons. Like King’s Assembly, Talons was geared towards gamers. It was also a split keyboard with keys in a very similar position. Unlike the King’s Assembly, the Talons halves didn’t work as a mouse, although they did have a trackball that could be used as a mouse (more or less where the joystick is located in the King’s Assembly).

In contrast to Talons, however, King’s Assembly has already blown past its initial funding goal, and several stretch goals. There are a few interesting things about the campaign. On the one hand, I’m cautious that the small gaps ($25K) between each of the stretch goals will actually be enough to fund each of them. I’m also cautious about what seems like a very aggressive design and production schedule. Being April now, and the design unfinished, it seems highly suspect to me that the ‘pioneer’ level contributors will receive their keyboards on time in July. On the other hand, I’m very impressed at the interaction between contributors and the company in the comments, where the company has been addressing highly technical questions and adapting their product to the needs and desires of their contributors. Some of the stretch goals were formulated through this interaction, and you can follow the company’s changes, such as using Cherry MX switches instead of the Cherry ML switches used in the original prototype. You can tell from the discussion that the company developing the King’s Assembly really understands the issues important to keyboard users, knows the ergonomic and gaming keyboard spaces, and is using that knowledge to develop something that is both new, but also takes into consideration what has worked in the past.

King's Assembly Prototype Key Design
King’s Assembly Prototype Key Design

From an ergonomic point of view, the King’s Assembly is still a bit in flux. As mentioned the key switches have changed since the beginning of the Kickstarter campaign. The good thing there is that with the MX switches, the company is offering to allow each customer to choose which color MX switch they want to use in their device. This is a level of customization that is nice to have, since different people like different switches (clicky vs. non-clicky, tactile vs. non-tactile, level of noise, amount of pressure needed to activate, etc.). Each keyboard half will also have adjustable palm rests. A change to a Maltron/Kinesis-style concave key placement is being planned as well (it is part of a stretch goal they should reach in the next day or so). What effect having the keyboard halves move will have on comfort remains to be seen. If you are worrying about moving the mouse when typing and are actively trying to keep the halves still, that could have an negative effect.

Overall, the King’s Assembly is a really interesting example of working with the community to guide your efforts, but still developing it with a professional team. Their Kickstarter campaign is a kind of model of interacting with customers, but of course it remains to be seen if they can deliver on their promises. Hardware Kickstarter-campaigns don’t have the best track record on delivering on time. Some don’t deliver at all (for example this multi-touch keyboard and mouse that tripled its funding goal and still never delivered). Let’s hope King’s Assembly delivers, even if not completely on time.

Some final thoughts

None of the above keyboards are available as commercial products yet. The story behind each keyboard is unique, but what is interesting is how single engineers, or small groups of engineers, have been able to develop new keyboard designs and promote them even before manufacturing them. This kind of promotion, and being able to crowd-fund development based on it, is something that never existed in past decades. Getting validation for one’s designs before beginning manufacturing is an amazing thing, and I’m glad it had spurred some engineers to come up with new and interesting keyboard designs. Hopefully the above designs are just the beginning of a new era of keyboard design.

I’ve come across rumors of a new Kinesis Advantage model that was forthcoming. Of course, I ran into those rumors in past years as well. I wouldn’t expect Kinesis to radically change the ergonomics of the Advantage, but if they did release a new model, one thing they could do is implement some of the convenience features that users have come to expect in keyboards in recent years – features like backlit keys, wireless connectivity, and at the very least a detachable USB cable. Adding some kind of mouse functionality, even a multi-touch touchpad in the middle, would be very useful.

Some of the Advantage Pro’s features are being implemented in keyboards like the King’s Assembly, like driverless-macros and the concave key wells. If Solid Art Labs, the company behind King’s Assembly, can implement all the features of the Advantage Pro keyboard, and include more features like the convenience features mentioned, as well as the mouse and joystick functionality, then presumably they could come out with a keyboard to directly compete with the Advantage Pro as well. The Advantage Pro costs $359. The King’s Assembly is currently going for $200 on Kickstarter, although will probably be closer to $300 when it hits retail. Cut out the mouse functionality as an option and it could probably be cheaper. Kinesis will need to modernize their keyboards, and come up with a good strategy should they suddenly have a direct competitor.

So to answer my somewhat cynical question that titled my last post, perhaps the costs of innovating new products was too high, and now that those costs have come down we’re going to start seeing more and more interesting keyboard designs. I certainly hope so. At the very least, these newcomers should wake up the existing vendors and get them to start updating keyboards that haven’t changed since some startup founders today were in diapers.

If you’re interested in keyboards, there are several enthusiast forums, including Deskthority, geekhack, and /r/MechanicalKeyboards.

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