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Three delayed keyboards (or four future keyboards)

Anyone who has been involved with crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, and particularly those who have backed hardware products, know all about product delays. I’ve written before about how crowdfunding sites are invigorating the hardware startup market, allowing hardware products to reach the market that would never have done so in the past. The flip side is of course that not all the hardware products that receive crowdfunding do in fact reach the market.

Many crowdfunded products have famously failed, such as the Eyez by ZionEyez HD video recording glasses whose principles seemed to simply disappear off the face of the planet without delivering any products (and it’s unclear if they ever worked on their product at all). That case was covered by Forbes and Network World, although it only raises about $350,000. More recently Kickstarter has made it harder for pie-in-the-sky hardware ideas to make it onto the site. One interesting case was the Skarp Laser Razor, which raised over $4 Million on Kickstarter before the site suspended their campaign. The company quickly switched to IndieGoGo and raised over $450,000. Whether Kickstarter was right and the project ultimately fails remains to be seen.

A product doesn’t need to be crowdfunded to be a colossal failure. The Gizmondo handheld gaming console built up a lot of hype before flaming out fast once they launched. I suppose it’s good they at least launched, although it was apparently the worst-selling console of all time, selling less than 25,000 units. The company behind it had apparently burned through $300 Million, most of it in the six months before it declared bankruptcy. In case you were wondering how a company could spend that much money in such a short period of time, you might remember the story of one executive of Gizmondo who the year following the bankruptcy crashed his $2 Million Ferrari Enzo into a poll on the Pacific Coast Highway at such a such speed that he literally split the car in two. It was later found that he had illegally imported over $10 Million worth of sports cars that were being leased in the UK to the US, and then stopped paying the leases.

Now I wanted to look at three keyboards I’ve previously discussed, and see where they fit into this story. I’m not saying these products will fail, and I certainly hope they do not, but some are examples of hardware crowdfunding projects that have been excessively delayed. Two keyboards, the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse, were crowdfunded. One, the Kinesis Advantage, is an existing keyboard from a longtime keyboard manufacturer, that has been awaiting an update for many years (for example being announced as forthcoming in 2013).

Let’s start with the two crowdfunded keyboards, since they are incredibly similar. Both the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse are split ergonomic keyboards whose halves can be moved as mice, allowing one to both type and use the mouse without having to ever move your hands off the keyboard. Both raised similar amounts of money (the KA raised just under $240K and the KM raised just over $150K. The KA cost $200 during the campaign (and is currently accepting pre-orders for $320), while the KM cost $299 during the campaign (and is slated to sell for $399 retail). Both keyboards launched their campaigns with non-mechanical key switches, and later updated their designs to support Cherry MX mechanical switches (I suppose if you’re buying a keyboard for $200-300 you expect quality switches). Both companies are beyond their promised ship dates.

The KeyMouse
The KeyMouse

For a long time I suspected the KeyMouse, even though it raised its money later than the King’s Assembly, would ship first. I thought that because the company was out there showing working demonstration hardware of their designs. The KeyMouse was shown at CES 2015 in Las Vegas, and won an Innovation Award at CES 2016, just a few months ago (it was actually announced in November 2015). I didn’t back the KeyMouse, and the updates they’ve posted have been made available only to backers, so it’s not entirely clear what is going on with the product. What I can glean from the comments is that they’ve offered all their backers full refunds, as well as a promise to sell them the final product when released at the same price they paid during the campaign. That seems like a very good way to deal with whatever problem they’re having. Most companies don’t ever offer refunds to Kickstarter campaigns, as it’s not required, and they’ve usually already spent the money. So while I don’t know what happened to cause KM to start offering refunds, it seems a good sign that they’re offering refunds, as it means they’re likely not insolvent. Maybe we’ll see products shipping from them, but don’t hold your breath on seeing it this year.

 

KA Beta Pair Pic from KS
King’s Assembly 3D-Printed Beta (from the back)

The King’s Assembly has never, to my knowledge, actually shown off its prototypes publicly. Some pictures have been released to backers in updates on Kickstarter, and recently they took orders for what they called Beta keyboards, basically prototypes with 3D-printed plastic parts, that they somehow managed to sell to people for $650 each before the Kickstarter units are ready to ship. I suppose it’s pretty clever getting people to pay for your beta testing hardware. It’s a little galling for some KA backers who paid for two units – a final unit when released, and a pre-production unit earlier. That pre-production unit was supposed to be ready a few months after the campaign ended in April 2014. Those backers, who paid $350 for the privilege of getting an early unit in addition to the final one, don’t get the Beta units. I guess if the money and testing received through the beta program help get the product finished, however, people will be happy to get their products in the end. At this point even the Beta units haven’t shipped yet, although they seem to be in some form of final assembly. Once they get to Beta customers, it will be interesting to see people’s reaction to them. I wonder if Beta customers are restricted from posting photos of the units online. We’ll see what happens when they get into customer hands. Even assuming they get them out soon, and they all work perfectly, I wouldn’t expect a final unit to ship from KA before 2017. If they do get the Beta untis out, it will at least show they’ve managed to manufacture working units in some quantity, although that won’t prove that they can mass-produce the product using the money given them by backers in 2014.

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro

Back in 2012, an employee of Kinesis started a thread on the Geekhack keyboard forum about what features people would like to see in a future version of the Kinesis Advantage contoured keyboard. I’ve written about the Advantage before (Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades? and How I would re-design the Kinesis Advantage keyboard). It’s a great keyboard, and I’ve used one myself on and off for years. The thread on Geekhack is actually still active, and there have been some interesting updates in the past four years. Of note, in early 2013, that same employee said the keyboard could be expected that year. As recently as last week, he was saying no date for the release, although other indications show that it is likely to come out this year (and in response to a tweet I sent them, they responded Q2). In the discussion online, it was revealed that the company only has about a dozen employees, and while the Advantage is the company’s most expensive keyboard, it isn’t the company’s most profitable. They sell many more of their less-expensive split adjustable Freestyle line of keyboards, which they’ve updated more frequently, adding for example Bluetooth support. In addition, they sell a line of foot pedals and other accessories.

Other priorities combined with some design problems has led to this delay now of more than four years. In the scheme of things, however, what’s four years? By my reckoning the last major update to the Advantage line was in 2002, when they introduced USB to the keyboard. That’s fourteen years since the last update. The overall design, however, hasn’t changed since it’s launch in 1996, which is twenty years ago. Twenty years selling the same design is pretty long by any reckoning, although Kinesis’ design is certainly modeled, at least in part, on the original Maltron keyboard that was designed in 1976 – so one could argue it’s a forty year old design. I’ve written how I would improve it, although my suggestions from 2014 are mostly functional, not design, changes. One design change that many people have asked for is the ability to split the keyboard into two halves, similar to their Freestyle keyboards. It seems that isn’t in the cards for the update planned this year, but they’ve said it’s not impossible in the future. It’s important to note that while this design update has been delayed, it’s not like the other keyboards which have backers that have put up money for them in advance. Kinesis certainly is under no obligation to update their keyboard, and while many people want an updated version, they’re not financially on the line if Kinesis never updates it.

 

Keyboardio Model 01
Keyboardio Model 01

I know the title of this post mentions three keyboards, but I’m going to mention one last keyboard because technically it’s not late yet. In fact I’ve mentioned this keyboard in at least two previous posts – A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence… and The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding. The keyboard is the Keyboardio Model 01, and I’ve been following it for quite a long time. If you look at the two previous posts you can see quite a change in its appearance over time. Part of what has been interesting about this keyboard is how much information was shared about its design long before it was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. What started out as an, I guess obsession is not too strong a word, for its designer Jesse Vincent, has been shared all along the way. Jesse started by documenting his keyboard on his blog, as well is in keyboard forums. He went through many many prototypes, and landed in a hardware incubator called Highway1, where he further refined the design. Finally, after years of work, sharing his trials and errors, and even his code, he launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

The campaign was actually quite simple for a crowdfunding campaign. No stretch goals or other oddities. The keyboard was sold for $299. A $999 limited edition actually sold 11 units, amazing to me (to many people it’s probably harder to believe they sold over a thousand keyboards at $299, but while there are many keyboards available for over $299, I don’t know of too many over $999). The Keyboardio folk did a 25 State road trip during the campaign, driving from coast to coast and showing off the keyboard in various maker spaces. In the end, they raised over $650K, more than both the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse combined. In addition, while I don’t expect the keyboard to ship by its April 2016 date (see, it’s not late yet), I do expect it to ship well in advance of the other two crowdfunded keyboards. There’s no question in my mind that the Keyboardio Model 01 will ship, and not many months after their original ship date.

One can certainly argue that the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse are much more complicated than the Keyboardio, and that’s mostly true. The Keyboardio has no pointing device (although it can move the mouse position using keys), it doesn’t move, it has many fewer parts, less keys, etc. However, it’s clear from looking at the stories of these keyboards that the Keyboardio was planned out well in advance of being crowdfunded, while the other two were only rough prototypes then (and over a year later for both, they essentially still are).

In the end, we have four new keyboard designs all supposed to be released in the coming year. I hope they all make it to production, and sooner rather than later. This is, to some extent, the beginning of a keyboard renaissance, and in large part it’s due to crowdfunding expanding the hardware market (see The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding). While not all keyboard crowdfunding campaigns have ended well (such as the failed Multi-Touch glass keyboard), it seems that if keyboards like the above can all reach the market it will encourage others to experiment and come up with new keyboard designs. While hardware crowdfunding has almost always been associated with delays, it’s still a major driver of innovation, and I hope we’ll see more products soon (although if you really want to ship stuff on time, I won’t oppose that).

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Keyboardio Model o1
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The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding

I’ve worked in both hardware and software companies over the years, and both are interesting and challenging, but there there is something special about making something you can hold in your hand, and that people will see on store shelves (even if virtual). One of the amazing things that crowdfunding sites have enabled is hardware products to come out faster and from smaller companies than was possible in the past.

I should add that almost all great hardware companies have great software behind them. Certainly with any electronic product, there is software controlling it. Sure, not all hardware needs software – my friend’s Grape Ninja product which became the OXO Tomato & Grape Cutter – doesn’t need software to operate. It did benefit from crowdfunding as part its marketing campaign, however, before moving to OXO.

I’ve touched on this, particularly in Crowdfunding hardware and Sous Vide cooking, and earlier in discussing A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence…, and I think this trend towards individuals and small teams coming out with more innovative hardware faster is only going to accelerate as more and more successful products come to market.

In A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence… I mentioned Keyboardio, a company started by an inventor who just wanted a better keyboard. At the time the inventor had just joined an incubator focused on hardware products. The fact that such an incubator exists is, I believe, also due to the ability of these companies to raised funds through crowdfunding. Betting on many small teams to be able to make it to large-scale manufacturing before crowdfunding was an option, would have been a much bigger bet for an incubator.

In that earlier post, the prototype for Keyboardio’s keyboard looked like this:

Keyboard.io
Keyboardio Model 00 (Blog)

The incubator that Keyboardio joined, Highway1, recently held a demo day for its companies where after several months in the incubator a new version of the keyboard was shown:

Keyboardio Model o1
Keyboardio Model o1 (Blog)

Besides the aluminum construction, the keyboard is split and adjustable. In perhaps an homage to the earlier prototypes, the wrist rests are still made from real wood. The keyboard is hackable – it is Arduino-compatible and comes with a screwdriver so you can open it up and modify the hardware. Interesting in the Keyboardio keyboard? If so, sign up on their web site to get updates. I expect a crowdfunding campaign soon.

Signe Brewster at GigaOM did a nice write-up of Highway1’s recent demo day, highlighting each of the hardware startups that presented along with Keyboardio. Other products included a camera you can stick to a wall to allow easier and better selfies and group photos (I can’t call them groupies, I’m sorry), electronic textiles, connected sports bras, robotic kits, and connected blocks. As a foodie (perhaps you figured that out from my crowdfunding post that focused on Sous Vide cooking devices), the most interesting after Keyboardio to me was the PalateHome Precision Grill which cooks your food algorithmically, based on type of food and how well (as in well done, not as in a measurement of quality) you want it cooked. Sous Vide might make perfectly-cooked meat, but it takes a long time and something is definitely lost when direct contact with the heat is removed from the process. I’ll be keeping an eye on PalateHome, although I’m not sure it will be available outside the US anytime soon.

In the old days, you couldn’t start a hardware company without knowing you’d be able to raise the money to do a first manufacturing run. In today’s world, with 3D printers to help prototype faster and cheaper, and crowdfunding to help get pre-payment for products, a lot of ideas which once stayed in people’s heads or at most sketches in a notebook, are now coming into existence. It’s an exciting time for hardware startups, and I think we’re going to see a lot of innovative hardware products released that would never made made it to market in the past.

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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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