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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).

The end

An infographic for the keyboard-obsessed

The web site Go Mechanical Keyboard just released the results of their semi-annual keyboard survey in the form of a very nice infographic, which I’ve displayed below. You can view the raw data online if you want. 950 people responded from 49 different countries.

You need to be a bit obsessed with keyboards to understand everything in the infographic, although if you’ve been following my other posts on keyboards you should get most of it. Form factor? See my post “How many keys are there on a keyboard?“. Switch types? See my recent post “A keyboard with swappable switches” where I change the switches that came with the keyboard.

What do you think about the infographic?


The end

A keyboard with swappable switches

It started out with a post to Reddit that linked to a series of photos on Imgur of a new keyboard the user had ordered from the Chinese e-commerce site Taobao. Taobao, for those who don’t know, is a Chinese-language-only e-commerce site run by Alibaba Group that caters to residents of China and nearby countries where people speak Chinese. Many sellers on the site, even if you could navigate the site in Chinese, won’t ship outside of China. To meet demand, a whole crop of sites have sprung up just to help foreigners order products from Taobao. These ‘Taobao agents’ will order the product for you, receive the product in China, and then re-ship it to you wherever you are in the world. Of course, that service comes with a price, and in many cases that eliminates any cost savings you might get from ordering from Taobao. Occassionally, however, there are products on Taobao that are not available elsewhere. In this case, the user (redditsavedmyagain) ordered a keyboard that was in fact quite unique.

The keyboard is called the Team Wolf Zhuque+. I had never heard of it and before that post on Reddit most other people had never heard of it either. The keyboard was made of Aluminum, had folding feet on the bottom that could be used to angle the keyboard, and had LED backlights. Most interestingly, the keyboard was configured to allow switches to added without soldering (and removed without desoldering). The keyboard comes with blue Gaote Outemu switches, made special for the SMD LED underneath the switch. Most LEDs in keyboards go on the top of the switch, with the wires going through holes in the switch and then soldered to the circuit board underneath. Since this keyboard allows the switches to be removed, the LEDs are surface-mounted to the circuit board and have no connection to the switch. This is nice, but presents some problems. For one, the light is below the switch instead of on top of it, meaning the switch itself needs to either be transparent or have a hole to allow the light through. Also, since most switches are not designed with SMD LEDs in mind, they may not have enough room at the bottom for the LED. The Gaote switches used in this keyboard are specially designed for these kinds of LEDs, and are recessed at the bottom to leave room for the LED, have an extra large hole to allow light through, and while the bottom of the switch is white plastic, the top is transparent. This allows the light lots of room to shine.

Two things about the keyboard got users excited on Reddit. First, the swappable switches. It’s not the first keyboard to have swappable switches, but it definitely is one of the first. The second reason was the price. The keyboard cost only about $30-$40. That’s more or less unheard of for a metal-frame mechanical keyboard, especially one including Cherry MX-compatible switches. While lots of people on Reddit wanted to order the keyboard, they ran into a problem – there was no easy way to order it without speaking Chinese and probably having a shipping location in China. Some managed to do it, but most could not. Instead, something interesting happened. Users recruited representatives of Massdrop on Reddit to look into putting together a group buy on their site. That came together very quickly. Massdrop contacted the manufacturer, and offered two versions of the keyboard, the same TKL version shown on Reddit, and a Full Size keyboard as well (if you don’t know the difference between TKL and Full Size, see my article How many keys are there on a keyboard?). In addition to the keyboard, Massdrop allowed the user to bundle Gateron switches that were similarly configured to the Gaote switches, designed for use with SMD LEDs. The Gateron switches similarly had a gap for the LED, larger holes above the LED, and transparent tops. Massdrop offered the switches in a variety of types (brown, red, black, etc.) for $30 for a set. The price of the TKL keyboard was $59 (and an extra $20 for the Full Size) and while shipping in the US wasn’t too expensive, outside the US the shipping came to $30. That brought the price of the keyboard that was somewhere around $30-$40 on Taobao to $89 to people outside the US. A lot of people were annoyed at the big price hike. Of course, most people couldn’t order on Taobao, and certainly couldn’t get SMD LED compatible switches to go with the keyboard (specialist switches like this are incredibly hard to find in small volumes).

Another option popped up at the same time. Chinese site also followed the post, and offered the same TKL version from the original post for $59 on their site, including shipping anywhere in the world. While the Massdrop deal might be better in the US considering it could be bundles with extra switches and you could get the Full Size version, the Banggood deal was better for most people outside the US as the price was the same and the shipping was free.

One big difference between Massdrop and Banggood in terms of this keybaord, is that Massdrop sold a set amount, and now you need to wait until Massdrop decides there’s enough interest to have another group buy for the keyboard. Banggood is a normal e-commerce site, and you can still buy the keyboard from them for $59. As long as there is interest in it, presumably they’re continue to replenish stock.

So I bought a keyboard through BG. It’s true that I can’t find the special SMD LED switches myself, but I read that other switches could work. I happened to have a bag of normal Gateron switches, and figured I could make them work. If not, I could always use the keyboard with the Gaote switches it came with.

This is what the keyboard looked like on arrival:

Close up of Team Wolf keyboard with original keycaps

For more (and better) images see the original photos on Imgur linked to from Reddit, as well as another review on Imgur (I can’t find the post that linked to this review).

So a few things about the stock appearance. Note the white keycaps with translucent legends. The stencil-like appearance of the legends is, how do I put this, not very appealing. I I like the FN (function) key that lets me use all the secondary functions, such as the media keys and the backlight controls.

The keyboard comes with a keycap remover, and a switch remover. The keycap remove wasn’t particularly good, but I had a different one which made it easier to remove all the keycaps:

Team Wolf keyboard close-up with keycaps removed

The switches are blue tactile clicky Gaote Outemu switches. Note the bottom half is white plastic, and the top is transparent. The first thing I noticed when I removed the keycaps was that the switches are mounted upside down. It took me a few moments before I realized all the keycaps I had removed had their legends on the top half of the keycap. The switches were mounted upside down so the opening for the LED underneath the switch would be underneath the legends. Normally the LEDs that are mounted on top of a switch are on the lower half of the switch, so in order to have the light on the top half of the keycap they needed to be upside down.

The next step was removing the switches from the keyboard. In a normal mechanical keyboard, you would need to desolder the switches from the circuit board, and then remove the switches. A normal switch has two contacts that would have to be desoldered. If there were LEDs, depending on the type, you would need to desolder either two or four contacts. That’s per switch. These LEDs have two contacts, so four contacts per switch, times 87 keys, is 348 contacts to desolder to replace all the switches in a normal mechanical keyboard of this size. I’m okay with soldering, but let me say that I hate desoldering. That’s one of the reasons this keyboard appealed to me. Here’s the switch removal tool that comes with the keyboard. It takes all of a couple of seconds to remove the switches:

Removing a switch

Removing the switches leaves you with an empty space in the top plate over the circuit board. Below you can see the four arrow key switches removed, with one of them flipped over so you can see the bottom of the switch. Note the two contacts, and the receiving point in the circuit board those would go into. You can also see the LED mounted on the circuit board, and the big hole in the switch which goes over that LED. The big circle in the middle of the switch is there to help hodl the switch in place, and you can see the corresponding hole in the circuit board where that goes.

Switches removed with one upside down

A look at the keyboard with all the switches removed. You might notice that the LEDs for some key locations are different than others. That’s because the LEDs are different colors. The letters and the right-side keys all have blue backlighting. The modifier and function keys all have white backgrounds, while the number keys have green backgrounds. The stabilizers, the white plastic pieces on either side of the large key locations (Backspace, Return and Shift) are not a type of stabilizer that I had ever seen before, but luckily they worked just fine with the other set of keycaps I wanted to use.

Team Wolf keyboard with switches removed

Before putting in new switches, I wanted to see what was on the back of the circuit board. I removed all the screws and removed the top plate and circuit board, and then flipped it over. You can clearly see the black units that receive the switch contacts:

Bottom of Team Wolf circuit board showing switch receivers

Here you can see the side of the circuit board that sits underneath the right side of the keyboard, where everything that makes the keyboard tick is placed:

Bottom of Team Wolf circuit board showing resistors

Once I took a look I put everything back together, and put all the screws back. The next step was preparing the switches. I didn’t have the special SMD LED switches, only plain Gateron brown switches. The switches I had were actually made for use directly on a PCB, so they had two extra small posts coming out of the bottom of the switch that would normally fit into matching holes in the PCB. Since I was plate-mounting these switches, and the PCB didn’t have matching holes, I had to do a little switch circumcision and snip the two posts off each switch:

Switch circumcision

The next step was to deal withy the fact that these switches were not designed to be used with SMD LEDs. The goal of those switches is to allow more light through the switch, both by having a larger hole above the LED and by having transparent switch tops. Standard Gateron switches like the ones I had are slightly translucent white plastic, but not fully transparent. Luckily I had a bag of transparent switch tops, and just needed to swap out the tops of each switch. For that purpose I have a 3D-printed switch opener that does the trick nicely:

Switch opener

It’s a little hard to tell from the picture, but basically you lower the switch on to the black plastic opener, and small wedges in the opener pry open four connection points on the switch and allow the top to be pulled up from the switch. After swapping the switch cover you can see the difference in the switch appearance:

Switch cover comparison

I also considered making a larger hole in the bottom of the switch to try to match somewhat with the switches that came with the keyboard, but I figured it didn’t matter too much since the Gateron bottoms were somewhat translucent, and the light would shine through the whole switch.

Here’s a look at the bottoms of the two switches. On the left is the Gaote switch that came with the keyboard. Note the opaque white plastic, and the large hole for the LED. It’s a little hard to see but the hole sits above a small gap that allows more room for the LED. The Gateron on the right, however, is made of translucent plastic, and has very small holes for the LED (because for these switches the LED would normally be on top, and the two contacts from the LED would pass through those tiny holes).

Bottom of Gaote and Gateron switches

One other minor modification was for the switch to be used for the space bar. It’s normal for the space bar to have a stronger spring than the other keys. I started out with a clear Gateron switch, and removed the cover, spring, and plunger from the switch. I then inserted the gold spring shown with a much higher resistance, and reinserted the plunger and added a transparent cover. I knew the space bar I was going to use didn’t have any opening for light, so putting the transparent cover on it was sort of a waste, but I figured I might as well keep it consistent.

Replacing the switch spring

This is what the switches looked like in place:

Team Wolf keyboard with brown Gateron switches close-up

They look pretty good, it’s almost a shame to cover them up with keycaps. Note that I had no trouble inserting these switches into the keyboard, event though the switches were not designed to work with SMD LEDs. It’s possible I’ll run into problems at some point because the switches are resting directly on the LEDs, although LEDs don’t generate a lot of heat, so it really should be too much of a problem.

I tested out the backlights before adding the keycaps, just to make sure they were all working:

Testing the backlights

Now that I knew all the switches were working I needed to add the keycaps. Before I could do that, however, I needed to get the stabilizers installed. Stabilizers are used by keys that are at least twice the width of a standard key. At that point the key can have problems without a stabilizer to keep the pressing of the key consistent. You don’t want there to be a problem when pressing the side of the key where the key just bends instead of pressing down the plunger on the switch. As I mentioned, I had never seen these kinds of stabilizers before, but they seemed fairly simple.

You start by removing the little plastic inserts from the old keys. Most keys have two stabilizers. Note the metal wire on either side of the stabilizer in the keyboard. You lift up the wire which is actually one U shaped wire, and position the plastic inserts onto those wires. The inserts fall into the stabilizer spaces, and when you push the keycap down all three plus-shaped pieces get pushed into the keycap (the two stabilizers and the switch itself in the middle):

Team Wolf keyboard stabs

After getting all the stabilized keys installed, started adding all the other keycaps:

Team Wolf keyboard half keycaps

These keycaps are Vortex Double-Shot PBT/POM keycaps. The black material is PBT, a higher-quality plastic than the standard ABS plastic used in most keycaps. The legends are injection-molded separately (the double-shot) out of POM, which is translucent.

Team Wolf keycaps with PBT keycaps

You can see that the legends are not the most readable. Here’s what they look like when the keyboard is plugged in:

Backlight test corner

Backlight test middle

Since these keycaps were not designed for this keyboard, the backlighting isn’t perfect. The biggest problem is that for numbers, the backlight is lighting up the shift value for each key instead of the primary value. Note how the !, @, #, etc. are all green while the numbers are not lit up at all. Here’s the full view:

Final keyboard Team Wolf

While not perfect, I’m definitely enjoying the Gateron brown switches, and I like the appearance of the Vortex PBT keycaps over the keycaps that came with the keyboard. The lack of backlight under the numbers is a bit distracting, however. It’s the same with any keycap that has two symbols on it, like the comma and period keys. You can understand now why the keycaps that came with the keyboard made the unusual design decision to put multiple symbols next to each other at the top, instead of the more standard one on top of the other. While I worked hard to maintain the backlighting, in the end it’s possible I’ll switch to regular keycaps that don’t support backlighting, to get a more consistent look for the keyboard. Maybe I’ll just switch the alphanumeric keys to standard keycaps, and leave everything else backlit. I’ll have to see if I can find keycaps that match the appearance of these Vortex keycaps, which may not be easy since these are PBT and any other keycaps I have, and most made, are ABS. One thing that bother me about the keyboard is the placement of the cable right in the middle of the case. I would have preferred to have it off to one side since I mostly work with a laptop and the cable gets in the way. A nice feature would have been to offer more than one exit point for the cable, and let the user decide which one to use.

I’m kind of amazed how much interest was generated for this keyboard by a single post in a forum. I hope Team Wolf is at least sending redditsavedmyagain some swag.

The end

Hand-wiring a keyboard

As part of an effort to teach myself hardware design, I’ve wanted to hand-build a keyboard. I ordered a top and bottom plate from Ortholinear Keyboards a couple of months ago (their 60% Atomic Semi-Standard design), but didn’t have the switches I needed to put it together. Recently I received a set of Gateron switches through a group buy, and started work on the keyboard.

One of the reasons I chose the Atomic kit was frankly that it was one of the least expensive options available to get started. The kit includes the top plate (a steel plate with holes cut to place the key switches), and a bottom plate that has matching screw holes to the top plate. A bag of screws and brass spacers allows one to attach the two plates. It is a very simple design. There is no circuit board to attach the switches to like most other keyboard kits. The Atomic needs to be hand-wired. That appealed to me as well, because I felt hand-wiring the keyboard internals would give me a much better understanding of its inner workings.

To start one simply pushes the switches into the holes in the top plate. The switches are designed to fit a plate, and snap into place. I used Gateron (Black variety) switches. Gateron switches are a clone of Cherry switches, the mechanical key switch standard, whose patents expired in the past few years. Gateron, Greetech and Kailh are some of the companies making clone switches, and Gateron are some of the best reviewed switches. The color (in this case Black) refers to the variety of switch – a combination of actuation force (how strong the internal spring is), and whether Linear, Tactile or Clicky. Cherry MX Blacks, and their Gateron clones, are linear switches with a 60n actuation force.

Once the switches are inserted, the hard part starts – soldering the connectors on the back side of the switches. Switches have two contacts on their bottom side. One contact is connected to the other switches in the same row, and one contact is connected to the switches in the same column. This design is called a matrix, and allows the micro controller inside the keyboard to determine which key has been pressed, using less wire connections than would be necessary if you tried to connect every key directly. It depends on your micro controller and the number of keys on your keyboard, but when building a keyboard you will almost always need to use a matrix design. In this keyboard’s case, there are 66 keys and only 24 places to connect wires. By using a matrix, I can instead connect the 5 rows and 15 columns, and use only 20 connections, thus staying below the limit of connections on the Teensy 2.0 micro controller I’m using.

As an example, a simple 4×4 matrix would look like this:

4x4 Keyboard Matrix
4×4 Keyboard Matrix

The red lines make up to row connections and the blue lines make up the column connections. The bumps in the column connections indicate that the wires don’t connect even though they overlap. In this case, there are 4 columns and 4 rows, and thus the micro controller would need 8 connections to read the key usage on the keyboard (8 connections for 16 switches).


In order to prevent ghosting in the keyboard (where the keyboard makes a mistake recognizing multiple key presses) diodes are added to each key switch. One thing I realized when looking at what other people had done when hand-wiring their keyboards, was that is was common to use the diodes themselves to connect switches in the rows. A diode lead is soldered directly to one of the switch contacts, and then the second lead is soldered to the second lead of the next diode. That might sound confusing, but it’s important. The connections between the diodes must be made such that the connections take place only between the second leads, creating a kind of rail that connects the leads, and creates a connection that cannot send electricity back up to the switches due to the diodes (which only allow electricity to flow in one direction). So one lead on the contact, and one on the next switches’ second lead. You continue in that pattern until you get to the end of the row.

The leads are only long enough to make the connection between regular size keys. If a larger key is used (like normally used for modifier keys like Shift, Tab, Backspace, etc. and the Spacebar) then the space is too long for the lead to reach across, and another solution is needed. In the case of the 2u modifiers (there are three in the Atomic layout) I simply soldered piece of diode leads that I had cut off previously (the part of the lead that attaches to the switch contact needs to be trimmed after it is soldered) to bridge the gap. For the spacebar, since it is significantly longer, I soldered a piece of wire to either side.

Here’s what the keyboard looks like with just the rows wired up (using the diodes):

Rows wired

There’s a difference between the rows and columns that is not clear from the diagram above. The columns are simply connected directly from contact to contact, since there are no diodes in the columns. This also means that there is no difference where you connect to the columns. The column is turned on, so to speak, by applying electricity to the whole column, so it that can be done anywhere. While the diagram shows the outgoing connections at the bottom of the diagram (similar to the row connections at the right of the diagram), the columns in reality end at the last switch in that column, and the connection can be made to one of the internal switches in the column (if that’s easier to fit the wiring), whereas the rows must be connected to at the end (after the last diode).


To wire the columns, I probably would have used solid-core wiring if I had had it, but I didn’t, so I used the bundle of wiring that Ortholinear sent with the plates, which is stranded wire. Since I wired the rows using the diode leads which are not insulated, the column wires must be insulated since they overlap the rows and would short if they were not insulated. After looking around at how other people had approached wiring up columns I came up with a technique that worked for me. What I did was strip the end of a segment of wire, which would be connected later to the bottom switch in the column. I then measured the distance to the next switch and made a cut in the insulation so I could pull the insulation up the wire a bit, creating a small gap in the insulation. It was important to measure to a couple of millimeters before the switch contact, and then pull the insulation so it created a gap a couple of millimeters past the contact, giving me enough space to solder the contact to the gap in the wire. After creating the gap, I would then measure to the next switch and repeat.

The reason I couldn’t measure all the distances at once was that I was pulling the insulation up the wire each time I created a gap, so any measurement marks I made earlier further up the wire would be moved. It was a bit time-consuming, but worked well. Once I had the wire for the column set up I pulled it under the row wires and positioned it next to each contact. I then soldered the bottom contact to the end of the wire and worked my way up the column until all the gaps were soldered to their proper contacts. The wire I had was color-coded, so I alternated colors across the columns, and made sure the colors followed the same order as the roll of wire, which came in handy later when connecting everything up (as you’ll see below). Here’s the keyboard with the columns wired:

Columns wired
Columns wired

You’ll note that the columns are not perfectly straight, because some keys span more than one column. When you have a wide key, you need to just pick one column to connect to that switch. To figure out which column would be assigned to which switch, I just decided on a rule that when there was a question I would connect to the left-most column the key spanned. On the bottom right of the keyboard above (actually the bottom left when the keyboard will be finished and flipped, but for this picture, it’s the bottom right) I just connected the bottom switches to the column they were closest to (they are off-center because they use larger keycaps). To guide me, I created a diagram like the above matrix diagram, but specific to this keyboard:

Atomic Semi-Standard Matrix
Atomic Semi-Standard Matrix

The reason it’s a good idea to make a diagram isn’t actually for wiring it, where a set of consistent rules should work well. The reason you need a diagram is that when you’re done and you want to program the controller, you’ll need to know how everything is hooked up. Having a diagram to look at can be simpler then referring to the actual hardware.

One thing to keep in mind. Technically the diagram above is backwards. We’re looking at the diagram the same way we’re looking at the back of the keyboard. The problem is that the software we’re going to load in the keyboard looks at the keyboard from the front. It also numbers the columns and rows starting from 0, so a more accurate diagram might be:

Atomic Semi-Standard Matrix (Corrected)
Atomic Semi-Standard Matrix (Corrected)

The firmware code actually uses hex numbering so there is no 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, rather they are A, B, C, D, E and F. Since I’m using C and R to indicate Column and Row, however, I think it’s easier to label the switches using numbers.

Connecting the Rows and Columns to the Microcontroller

The next step is to connect everything we’ve done so far to the microcontroller, in this case a Teensy 2.0. Each column (15 of them) and each row (5 of them) need to be connected to the Teensy. Luckily, the Teensy has over 20 connections. The simplest thing to do is connect 10 wires to each side of the Teensy. In order to keep things organized, I decided to take the roll of wire I had, which was a strip 10 wires wide, consisting of insulation that came in ten sequential colors, and solder the wires to the rows and columns without disconnecting the wires completely. This allows me to end up with two strip of ten wires still connected at the ends, ready to connect to the Teensy. To pull this off, it required a bit of advanced planning. One thing I wanted to do, was re-use the same colors I had used for the columns, in the same order, so for each column, I was continuing the same color on its way to the Teensy. This would allow me to identify the wiring quickly when looking at the connections. For example, the first column is brown, and that will end up being the first connection on the Teensy. I’ll be able to visually see the connection of the brown wire to the first Teensy connection, and know for each connection exactly where it goes. There are 15 columns, but only 10 colors, but that’s okay because the next 5 columns will be connected on the other side of the Teensy with the rows. I was careful to run the wires underneath the existing rows and columns, and tried to keep the wires within the space between the keys whenever possible. This is what the wiring looked like when I finished:

Connection wires added

All the wires now run to the gap underneath the spacebar. That seems like the logical spot to place the microcontroller, as it’s the only spot without a switch in it. The right side of the spacebar switch is bigger than the left side (since the switch is not centered) so I put the wires there. In retrospect, it might have been easier to do the above if I had left the bottom row of switches disconnected from the columns, to make it easier to run the wires in the space between the switches. It wasn’t too bad, but it did require some delicate pulling of wires under the column wires which could have easily snapped in some cases.

Making the Teensy removable

I decided the project wasn’t difficult enough, so I’d make it harder (that’s a joke). I wanted to be able to remove the Teensy from the keyboard at a later date without having to desolder it. Normally one would just solder the wires to the holes along the Teensy and be done with it. Making it removable required figuring out something clever to connect the wires to the Teensy without solder. What I came up with was to use dupont micro connectors. I ordered connectors that were 10 units wide. When I ordered them I wasn’t even sure they would line up properly with the holes on the Teensy, but luckily they did. The male side of the connector has pins on both the bottom and the top. I soldered the bottom pins into the Teensy, with one on either side of the Teensy.

Teensy 2.0 with 10-unit connectors soldered on
Teensy 2.0 with 10-unit connectors soldered on

I then separate the ends of each wire coming from the rows and columns, and stripped the ends. The trick here is that the stripped section of wire has to be really short. One’s inclination is to give it a little extra space as you might do when soldering, but if you leave extra space here, the wire won’t fit properly in the dupont connector. Once I stripped all the wires, and practiced crimping the dupont connectors on extra wire I had, and then practiced inserting those connectors into the plastic female housing that held the ten connectors. This took a lot of practice, and I messed up a lot of connectors before getting a good feel for how it works. Even with all the practice, I ended up having to re-do two out of the twenty crimps that I did, but that’s not too bad.

Crimping the dupont connectors to the wires, in progress
Crimping the dupont connectors to the wires, in progress

Once I crimped all the connectors onto the wires, I inserted them into their housings and inserted the housing into their male counterparts on the Teensy. Along the way, I tried testing the connections using a multi-meter, just to make sure everything was working. This is what it looks like completed:

Dupont connectors inserted
Dupont connectors inserted

From a wiring point of view the keyboard is complete. There are three things left to do.

Close the case

First, we can close up the bottom. This keyboard came with a bottom plate with matching screw holes to the top plate. If you look at the photos above, there are brass spacers spread around the top plate in between the switches, six in total. I have black tubing around the brass spacers to prevent any wires from touching the metal. Those spacers have screw holes, so all I need to do is place the plate on top of those spacers and insert and tighten the screws.

Add keycaps

The second is to add keycaps to the switches (on the top of the keyboard):

Keycaps added
Keycaps added

You’ll notice that a few switches don’t have keycaps. That’s because I was missing a stabilizer bar for the spacebar when I added the keycaps, and I didn’t have the right keys for the 2u keys which will be the right-shift and enter keys. As I’m writing this I’m expecting both the stabilizer bar for the spacebar, and some blank 2u keycaps to arrive in a couple of days.

Program the keyboard

The third thing that is needed is to program the firmware. Keyboard have their own software that tells the micro-controller (the Teensy) how to interpret keystrokes. Ortholinear recommends TMK firmware, and they’ve made their own branch of the code with some of the settings for their keyboard kits – in addition to the Atomic (matrix 60%), there is the Planck (matrix 40%), Neutrino (staggered 65%) and Quark (staggered 40%).

One can do a lot with the software in a keyboard, but there are a few basics that need to be done. First, you need to map the connections on the micro controller to specific columns and rows. If the firmware doesn’t know what each connection is connected to, it can’t determine which key was pressed. In addition, you need to tell the firmware which switch should trigger which keystroke. You also need to tell the firmware how many columns and rows are in the keyboard. Advanced firmwares like TMK support layering, which means you can add multiple ‘layers’ of keys, so one layer might be what you think is normal for a keyboard with numbers and letters, while a second layer might have function keys and number pad (for keyboards like this one that don’t have function keys or a number pad), and a third layer might have special application-specific macros for applications like Photoshop, or for specific games. To start out I used the layout that was set up as the default for the Atomic.

Basically, I followed the roadmap in matt3o’s guide How to build your very own keyboard firmware on deskthority, with a few changes since Ortholinear’s branch of TMK is already customized for their keyboards. At first, when I tried to compile I ran into a string of error messages, but after asking Jack Humbert (aka Ortholinear) his thoughts on what was going on, he pointed out a single missing # in my code was causing it to fail. Adding in the # and everything worked.

Well, sort of. When I originally complied the firmware and got the keyboard working, the keymap seemed not to be exactly what I thought it would be. I don’t need to go into all the gritty details here, but let’s just point out that programming a keyboard from scratch is not something most people would ever want to do. Not only do you need to check the code, but you need to check the hardware to make sure your problems are not due to a soldering mistake. It’s not fun.

Finishing the Keyboard

In order to finish the keyboard, I needed two things. First, I needed to install the missing keycaps. All three missing keycaps used stabilizers, as all keycaps at least 2 units wide (i.e. twice the width of a standard key) need stabilizers in order to allow the key to press evenly across the entire key. After I received a 6.25u stabilizer bar for the spacebar, I installed that and the spacebar. After receiving 2u keycaps, I installed those on the stabilizers as well. Now all the keycaps were installed.

Second, I needed to make the USB port on the Teensy accessible. This is where some advanced planning would have helped a bit, but truthfully I started building the keyboard without the part I needed, so it wouldn’t have helped unless I had decided not to build the keyboard. The part I needed was a short USB extension cord so I could connect it to the USB port on the Teensy and run it in between the key switches and out the top of the keyboard. The advanced planning part would have been to run the extension cord in between the switches before all the soldering, so it would fit underneath the connections and stay in place. The problem I had after the fact was that I could not fit the extension cord underneath the connections without stripping the wire almost completely. That meant the plastic insulation was gone, and I would need to insulate the wire after getting it into place. I still haven’t found a great solution to this problem, although for the time being the USB extension cord is wrapped in electrical tape.

The end
Infinity ErgoDox

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 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.

The end

How many keys are there on a keyboard?

Longtime readers of this blog might have noticed my interest in computer keyboards. Most people today just use the keyboard that comes on their laptop, or the virtual one on their tablet. The basic layout of the keyboard dates back over a hundred years to early typewriters, but the more modern layout of the keyboard dates back to 1986 and the emergence of the IBM Enhanced Keyboard for the Personal Computer, which debuted the 101-key layout which has become the standard full-size keyboard layout to this day. Microsoft bumped the layout to 104 keys with the addition of Windows keys and a Menu key a bit later, but the layout is essentially the same. This is a rule-of-thumb, as no two keyboards are exactly the same. The number of keys on a full size keyboard varies, some having media keys, etc. The layout, more or less, is the following:

Full-Size Keyboard Layout
Full-Size 104-Key Keyboard Layout

It’s worth pointing out that the 101/104 layout is the standard layout in the US, called ANSI (American National Standards Institute), while in Europe there is slightly different 102/105 key layout called ISO (International Organization for Standardization). The ISO layout has an extra key (to the right of the left-side Shift key), but also changes some of the layout, using an L-shaped Enter key instead of the  straight ANSI Enter key (as above), as well as changing the function of the right-side Alt key (called Alt Graph) to allow for simpler access to more characters (i.e. Left-Alt and a key will produce one character, while Right-Alt and the same key will produce another character). This simplifies the generation of accented characters that are not generally used in the US.

Key Blocks

In the above diagram I’ve broken down the layout into four blocks – Basic, Function Key, Navigation and Number Pad. When all four blocks are present, you have a standard full-size keyboard. Remove the Number Pad block on the right side, and you have an 87/88 key layout (87 in ANSI, 88 in ISO). Keyboard enthusiasts refer to this as Tenkeyless (TKL). Why Tenkeyless? I have no idea. There are actually 17 keys in a standard number pad. I suppose there are ten number keys in a number pad. In any case, most physical keyboards conform to either the 87/88 or 104/105 layout. Laptops of course, throw out most of these standards in an effort to fit the keys they need into a much more constricted space. Usually a laptop will include the Basic Block, the Function Block (although with smaller keys), and jam the 4 arrow keys of the Navigation Block somewhere into the keyboard (for example, by shrinking the spacebar, removing a control key from the right, and sticking small arrow keys in the bottom right corner). We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Gaming Keyboards

While most keyboards not bundled by computer manufacturers are still probably produced by big companies like Microsoft and Logitech, there are many keyboard companies that try to reach smaller niche markets. One very large niche market is the gaming market, where keyboards that allow gamers to more easily press many buttons at once, allow programming the keyboard to optimize it for specific games, and where they can pimp out their keyboard with backlighting and special keys to look cool when competing. The largest company to target this particular market niche is California-based Razer, which was valued at $1 Billion in a recent investment round led by Intel. Razor has expanded from its original pointer devices and keyboards to produce gaming laptops, wearables, and other consumer electronics devices.

Big companies like Logitech manufacture keyboards targeting gamers, but there are also many smaller companies that sell primary to the gamer market. Besides Razer, other companies include Cooler MasterCorsairRoccatSteelSeries, and Tt eSports.

Programmer Keyboards

The next large keyboard niche is computer programmers. Programmers, by dint of the amount of time they spend in front of a keyboard, have more requirements in general than the average user, and are also more willing to use more technical solutions to keyboard problems. These technical solutions can include keyboard layers, where the user can switch the entire layout of the keyboard on the fly, chording, where users use combinations of key presses to output what they want instead of using single key presses, and programmable keys and macros. The first keyboard I’m aware of that targeted programmers was the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB), which was introduced by a division of Fujitsu in 1996. The HHKB reduced the key count to just 60 keys, leaving just the Base Block from the above diagram, and overlaying the Function Block and the Navigation Block onto existing keys, using a special function key to access those keys (and printing the function-enabled key labels on the front of the keycap in addition to its standard label on the top – see below).

Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional2 Type-S
Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) Professional2

Another milestone keyboard targeting programmers was the Das Keyboard, introduced by open source software company Metadot Corporation in 2005. The original Das Keyboard introduced, or at least popularized, keyboards with blank keys. The idea for the keyboard was conceived by the CEO of Metadot, who realized that looking at the keyboard when typing was a crutch, and slowed down one’s typing. The idea is that by using blank keys, one could force themselves to touch-type and increase your typing speed dramatically. Other keyboards that target programmers include the CODE Keyboard, the Humble Hacker Keyboard, and the upcoming Ultimate Hacking Keyboard.

The Overlap

While gamers and programmers have different needs, there is a lot of overlap between the specs for gaming and programming keyboards. For example, programmability is very common for both types of keyboards, although for slightly different reasons. Gamers need to optimize the keys for specific games and create macros for common key-combos. Programmers optimize for the languages they use, and for their particular coding style. Gamers tend toward larger keyboards with lots of buttons that insure they can control all aspects of the game they are playing, while many programmers actually use smaller keyboards to keep their range of movement to a minimum. Both groups of keyboards tend towards using mechanical switches such as Cherry MX switches (and their many clones such as Gaote, Greetech and Kaihl), and in some cases there is overlap where keyboards are used both for programming and for gaming. On the other hand, it’s unlikely you’ll find a gamer using a small keyboard with blank keys. What is a ‘small’ keyboard?

75% Keyboards

As mentioned, there are keyboards referred to as Full-Size (101/102/104/105 keys) and there are keyboards called Tenkeyless (87/88) where the number pad is dropped. What if you drop the navigation block as well (sometimes arrow keys are kept)? Then you get just the Base Block and the Function Key Block. This is a configuration frequently used in laptop keyboards. Here’s an example of the keyboard layout on an Apple MacBook Pro:

MacBook Pro Keyboard Layout
MacBook Pro Keyboard Layout

Note that the function keys are smaller than the other keys, and that the arrow keys have been squeezed into the bottom right corner (by removing some of the right-side modifier keys and keeping the arrow keys small. This is a 75% Layout, where there are roughly 75% of the keys found on a full-size keyboard. This kind of layout is unusual for a separate keyboard, but it does exist. Some examples of non-laptop 75% keyboards are the Matias Mini TactilePro, the Keycool 84, the KBC Race II which was developed by the KBtalking keyboard community in Taiwan and manufactured by Vortex, and the BL82 keyboard manufactured by TG3 Electronics.

60% Keyboards

If we keep going, what happens if we drop the Function Key Block as well, so it’s just the Base Block? We have roughly 60% of the keys of a Full-Size layout, and thus a 60% Layout (which usually has somewhere between 60-66 keys). Some keyboards that use a 60% Layout also figure out ways to cram in arrow keys. Some versions of the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) for example, squeeze in arrow keys in the bottom right corner, even while dropping the whole top row of function keys. What happens if you need the function keys you ask? or even the arrow keys if they’re not there? Most of the keys that are removed in the 60% keyboard are mapped to other keys, and accessible by holding down a modifier key. Thus, F1 through F12 are usually mapped to the number row (F1 to 1, F2 to 2, etc.). 60% Keyboards are popular in keyboard enthusiast groups, as a kind of minimalist keyboard. They are also popular with some programmers who prefer the minimal design which reduces the distance they hands must move to reach the entire keyboard, and the distance to reach an external pointing device such as a mouse (on a full-size keyboard, for example, reaching over the navigation block and the number pad block to get to a mouse is far).

Below is the Happy Hacking Keyboard Lite 2 layout (a variation on the original layout shown above in the photo, which adds four arrow keys). It shows which characters are accessed via a function key in red:

Happy Hacker Keyboard Lite 2 Key Layout
Happy Hacker Keyboard Lite 2 Key Layout

You can buy 60% keyboards such as the Ducky Mini, the Filco Minila, the Happy Hacking Keyboard, and the Leopold FC660M. There are also community-designed company-manfactured 60% keyboards, such as the Vortex (the company) KBC (the community) Pok3r II (soon to be the Pok3r III) and the KB Paradise V60 Mini. In addition, there are several 60% keyboards available in kit form for those who are willing to assemble them by themselves. Some of these kits are community-designed, such as the GH60 and the Massdrop Infiniti, and some are individually designed, such as the Atomic and the Lepton.

40% Keyboards

While many consider the 60% to be minimalist in design, there are some people designing even smaller keyboards that drop the entire number row and other keys, forcing the use of a modifier key to access numbers and other keys that are dropped from the keyboard. There are no commercially produced 40% keyboards that I’m aware of, although there are some community and individual-designed keyboards available. Some kits are available, such as the Planck (the 40% sibling of the 60% Atomic above), the Terminus Mini, the Atreus, and the SmallFry (aka the JD40).

At first glance, you might think it’s crazy to get rid of the numbers and require one to hold down a modifier key to type a number. However, if you think about it, we already use a modified – the Shift Key – to reach all the characters currently mapped to the number keys, which are !, @, #, $, %, ^, &, *, ( and ). Why is that different to use a second modifier key to reach the numbers from existing letter keys? One problem that emerges is the keycaps. If you’re using blank keycaps, I guess you’re fine. Otherwise, how are you going to get keycaps that show you the modifier-layout that you require to access the keys you lost? Those Shift-modified characters (above) also need a place on the keyboard, either on the same keys you move the numbers to (add the Shift) or somewhere else, but either way, you need to know where they are. Are you going to put three characters on a single keycap (i.e. Q, 1 and !)? Besides being difficult to source such keycaps, they would most likely be expensive. In all the builds I’ve seen of these keyboards, they either use blank keycaps, or they just use the letters and leave out the numbers. The numbers are of course easy enough to guess (there are 10 letters across the top), so I guess that works in a way, but if you rely on printed keycaps, figuring out the location of other characters can’t be easy. This is something that a commercial 40% keyboard might be able to fix, although for the moment, these seem to be strictly hobbyist-made.

Can there be a 20%?

If you follow the above trend, you might wonder if there could be a 20% keyboard. Strictly speaking, sure. You’d need to do a lot of chording (pressing multiple keys at once to get the correct character). In general, if a keyboard has 20% of the keys of a full-size keyboard, you’re talking about a one-handed keyboard. They exist, to be sure, but they are niche products. One one-handed keyboard I always liked was the FrogPad, created by Linda Marroquin, based on the design of a Japanese translator who wanted to be able to hold a page in one hand and type using the other hand. If you take a close look at the layout of the FrogPad, it has 20 keys and they have up to seven different characters or functions related to them.

Right-Handed FrogPad
Right-Handed FrogPad

Take a look at the top right key. If you press it by itself, it’s P (top side, upper left in white). If you hold down the Space (which has a green square on it) it’s J (top side, bottom left in green). If you hold down the Shift key, it’s a semi-colon (top side, upper right in white). If you hold down the Space and the Shift, it’s a number sign (top side, lower right in green). It can also be Page Up (front left in orange), minus (front right in white), and Number Lock (left side in yellow) depending on what other keys you press.

A later iteration of the keyboard added another 11 keys, which included function keys and others, although I’m not sure that ever made it to market. It seems there are lawsuits involved as Marroquin had licensed the design to a third-party company, and that third party took money for pre-orders that were never delivered. Marroquin now seems to be trying to rejuvenate the product.

One enthusiast-developed 20% keyboard is called the OneHand, designed by Deskauthority forum user PJE. It has just 18 keys, and similar uses chording to achieve the full number of characters and functions needed.

One other thing about the FrogPad which is worth pointing out is that the layout is not staggered. In keyboard design it’s called ortho-linear, or matrix layout. In other words, the keys are in a grid, not staggered like most keyboards. It’s not unique to the FrogPad. Indeed the Maltron and Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard have been using matrix layouts for years (see all three in my earlier article Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades?), as well as the ErgoDox, Keyboardio, and King’s Assembly keyboards (all mentioned in my earlier article A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence…).


I suspect most people don’t think much about any of the above when buying a keyboard. In fact, most people don’t buy keyboards at all anymore. That said, for those interested in a higher quality keyboard than what is available on their notebook or tablet, want a specialized keyboard for gaming or other niche pursuits, or need a more ergonomic keyboard, these issues are important. Perhaps next time you look at a keyboard, you’ll understand what keys it has, and what was left out – and why.

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Keyboardio Model o1

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:
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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Advantage Pro Keyboard

How I would re-design the Kinesis Advantage keyboard

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro Keyboard

I’m a fan of the Kinesis Advantage keyboard, but it’s definitely long-in-the-tooth these days. The keyboard’s basic design reaches back over twenty years. The current USB version was introduced in 2002, and I don’t think there have been any significant changes in the past twelve years. I’ve seen rumors of a re-vamped version, but nothing has been released.

As you can tell from my previous posts, I believe there is a big difference between convenience features (such as wireless, backlit keys, etc.) and ergonomic features in keyboards. On the ergonomics side I don’t think Kinesis needs to make many changes to what is a popular design. There are some changes that could be made, such as perhaps splitting the left and right sides, or making the keyboard more adjustable. On the convenience side, however, I think there are a lot of changes Kinesis could make to the keyboard.

Here are my suggestions for the next generation of the Kinesis Advantage:

Cut the cord

When I originally wrote the heading above I was thinking wireless (see below) but the truth is, the one thing that has annoyed me the most over the years about the Advantage is that the USB cable is permanently connected to the keyboard. USB connectors can get damaged, sometimes people want shorter cords, etc. Kinesis should switch to using a USB port instead of a built-in cable, so users can choose the cord length they want to use, and can swap out damaged cables, etc.

Go wireless

Adding wireless to keyboards is relatively cheap and easy these days. Keyboards, being right in front of you on your desk, are an obviously annoying place to have to deal with cables. Add Bluetooth support and a battery that can be charged via USB. The battery should be removable, so it can be replaced as needed (no battery lasts forever).

Backlit keys

Kinesis may have helped create the Cherry MX Brown switches used in the Advantage, but they haven’t kept up with fact that many keyboards available today that use MX Browns also have LED backlighting. In an ideal world anyone using a keyboard would have proper lighting and wouldn’t need backlighting, but when you do need it, it’s nice to have. They should include a way to adjust the level of brightness of the LEDs as well.

Multi-touch touchpad

Take a look at the photo above. See that huge space between the key wells? It’s practically screaming for a touchpad. You could have a touchpad that is the same size as the one on a MacBook Pro in that space, without having to change the spacing of the keyboard at all (they would just need to move the status LEDs). Having it in the middle means it can be used both left-handed and right-handed people. It might not be the most ergonomic of choices, but it would be very useful for those who want it. It could be an optional feature. I’m open to other pointing devices, but this seems ideal from a space usage point of view, and multi-touch enables lots of useful features (like scrolling).

Space below the keyboard

When Kinesis originally designed the Advantage, it was probably used mostly with desktop computers. If people were using laptops, they were huge compared to the ones produced today. One of the things people notice about the Advantage is how tall it is compared to the average keyboard. Considering that the Advantage is wider than most notebook computers today, and that many notebooks like the MacBook Pro/Air are very very thin, it is probably possible to insert a space beneath the keyboard so it can be slid on top of a notebook, covering up the front section of the computer. This would allow the user to get closer to their screen if they want, reducing eye-strain. I haven’t opened up an Advantage to see how close the internals are to the bottom of the case, but I would think this could be done without major changes to the keyboard internals.

Built-in Web Server

The Advantage keyboard has another feature besides its ergonomics that set it apart over a decade ago when it was introduced – it supports programmable macros. Macros are more common these days to be sure, so Kinesis needs to step up its game here as well. One way to do that is to build in a web server, allowing users of the keyboard to connect to it from any device, regardless of platform, and configure the keyboard. This could allow re-mapping keys, seeing what macros are currently set, allowing one to create new macros, etc.


None of the changes are ground-breaking changes that will revolutionize the world of keyboards, but all together I think they will make for a much better product, and something much more enjoyable to use. The Advantage is a great keyboard, but it is definitely showing its age, and these changes would make it competitive with more modern keyboards not just because of its distinctive finger wells, but on every other metric as well.

The end

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 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 (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 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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Early Maltron Keyboard

Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades?

This might seem surprising coming from someone whose first job was for a speech recognition company more than 20 years ago, and whose current company also develops speech recognition software. I’m extremely annoyed at the lack of innovation in keyboards.

It’s not surprising that attention to keyboard design has lagged in recent years, when production of laptops long ago overtook the production of desktop machines, and tablets will soon overtake the combined production of both laptops and desktops. Take a look at this chart from IDC:


If you count cell phones in the mix, the production of desktop computers is a tiny percentage of overall computing devices. Sure, some people use external keyboards with laptops, but overall the need for external keyboards in dwindling.

Unfortunately, laptop keyboards have different design goals than external keyboards. While innovation in external keyboards usually has to do with comfort over long periods of typing, reduction in repetitive stress injuries, etc. laptop keyboards are usually focused on simply fitting into a very narrow space. Other considerations are of course secondary.

The only real innovation in laptop keyboards that I can remember was IBM’s introduction of its butterfly keyboard in the ThinkPad 701 laptop in 1995. The keyboard actually opened up so the size of the keyboard was wider than the actual laptop, giving the user a bigger and presumably more comfortable keyboard. This keyboard would never fly today, because it required more vertical space. In today’s world of ultra-thin laptops, no one would go for a keyboard that made the laptop thicker.

That’s not to say that there is no market for keyboards. Putting aside OEM keyboards sold with desktop computers (which are generally not innovative), and putting aside laptop keyboards, the market for keyboards is still a massive market. Logitech, one of the largest, if not the largest, independent producer of keyboards sold more than $400M in keyboards and keyboard/mouse kits in fiscal year 2013. Add to that other big manufacturers like Microsoft and the dozens of small companies that make keyboards, and that’s still a heck of a lot of keyboards being made every year.


Early Maltron Keyboard
Early Maltron Keyboard

One of the most innovative keyboard designs in my opinion was one developed by a British woman named Lillian Malt. She spent years trying to improve the design of the keyboard, changing the locations of buttons to match the different lengths of individual fingers, putting the most used keys closer to the home row on the keyboard, and other improvements in efficiency. Her keyboard, named the Maltron, was first shown in 1976, and she described it in a 1977 paper. She was even written up in People Magazine the same year. Maltron never became a major manufacturer, and even though its products are still manufactured today, it has a reputation for making very expensive and not particularly well-built products (while crafting something like a wooden cabinet might benefit from a small skilled set of craftsmen, electronics usually benefit from mass-production methods). It has expanded beyond its original keyboard design to add one-handed keyboards, keyboards for quadriplegics that can be used with a mouth stick, etc. but all of its keyboards are priced beyond what most people can afford to pay for a keyboard. They’ve essentially priced themselves such that only people with serious injuries or handicaps, who require their keyboards, would buy them (and probably only with the help of insurance or an employer).

Kinesis Advantage

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro Keyboard

Call it inspired, influenced, whatever, some people call it ripped-off, but another company Kinesis released a very similar keyboard in the early 1990s. By 2002, Kinesis launched a USB version of their keyboard, the Kinesis Advantage, and basically that was the end of their innovation. Neither Maltron nor Kinesis have made any real changes to the design of these keyboards in over a decade.

If you read through Logitech’s annual report one thing that stands out is that wired keyboards are dropping in sales, and wireless keyboards are increasing. That makes sense, but how is it that companies trying to compete in the overall market would not consider these trends and update their products?

These keyboards are already some of the most expensive keyboards on the market, so perhaps the issue is cost. The Kinesis Advantage retails for $299. The Maltron costs £375 (roughly $622). Hard to imagine what they might cost with new technology like bluetooth and backlit keys, right?

I’ve personally used the Kinesis Advantage Pro and think it’s great. When my hands hurt from typing, it relieves my symptoms. However, I rarely use an external keyboard anymore, so it’s therefore rare for me to be able to use it.


DataHand Keyboard
DataHand Keyboard

Another radical keyboard design that also reaches back about two decades, is the DataHand. No longer produced, and sought after in the second-hand market (an unopened DataHand recently sold on eBay for $2499), the DataHand took an even more radical approach to limiting hand and finger movement than the Maltron and Kinesis keyboards. The DataHand created wells for each finger, and had five buttons accessible from each finger without having to move it out of place. Keys were positioned north, south, east, west and down (really up, down, left, right and forward) and the keyboard could even be used as a mouse without moving your fingers out of place. There’s a video you can watch if you want to see the keyboard in action.

There are even someone trying to re-create the DataHand from scratch. He’s re-creating the 5-way key switches needed for each finger, and claims he’s 70% of the way there. It’s great to see something like this re-created in a public forum, but we’re still talking about a twenty-year-old design.


FrogPad2 Keyboard
FrogPad2 Keyboard

I’ll just give one more example of an interesting keyboard design, which is interesting for a number of reasons. Around 2004 Linda Marroquin introduced a one-handed keyboard called the FrogPad. The design was based on something a Japanese translator had created to allow him to hold a document in one hand and translate it using his other hand (why he didn’t just use a paper stand I don’t know). The FrogPad was a tiny USB keyboard that was operated with one hand. The keys were full size, the ability to type more letters was gained through the use of chording. Chording is using more than one key at a time to output a single character. The FrogPad went through several iterations over the years, including a Bluetooth version, a touchpad version, an iPad app, etc. The company struggled over the years, however, and the product was not always available. Recently it was announced that a new generation FrogPad, the FrogPad 2, was going to be introduced. Offering modern technology like LED key backlighting, both USB and Bluetooth, the new FrogPad will try to re-introduce the product. While this new generation keyboard was designed in concert with Linda Marroquin, it’s not clear if she is still involved in the company that is now re-introducing it.

In any case, the design dates back over a decade. Maltron is from the 1970s. Kinesis and DataHand are from the 1990s. What happened to innovation in this field?

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard

Sculpt Ergonomic

Interestingly, one of the few companies putting an effort into iterating their ergonomic keyboards is a software company – Microsoft. Microsoft’s Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard was released last year, and seems to be an evolution from earlier ergonomic keyboards that sought to keep the direction of each hand more natural (not parallel). The keys are not tactile, and there is no differentiation in distance for different fingers like the Maltron innovated, but it is a solid well thought out keyboard.

Which Switch?

Recently there have been a slew of new keyboards hitting the market whose sole innovation has been to re-introduce mechanical switches under the keys. Mechanical keys generally require more pressure to activate, and offer a tactile feel that many people prefer when typing. Kinesis understood this two decades ago when they created their first ergonomic keyboard, as they worked with keyboard switch manufacturer Cherry to create a tactile switch now called the Cherry MX Brown. For many years Kinesis was the only customer for these switches, but over time they and slight variations on them, became very popular. In a kind of retro-chic movement, keyboard companies have been introducing premium keyboards with mechanical switches that are a throw-back to the earliest computer keyboards. For an interesting look at the various Cherry Switches, used in many many keyboards on the market today, see An introduction to Cherry MX mechanical switches from the Keyboard Company.

Many companies tout how close their keyboards are to the original IBM Model M Keyboards from the 1980s, whose ‘buckling spring’ mechanical switches were considered the pinnacle of tactile keyboard technology. Interestingly, after IBM sold its computer business to China-based Lenovo, the keyboard division was sold off, and modern versions of those keyboards with the same buckling spring keys are now made in Kentucky by the company Unicomp.

Mechanical keys or not, these new keyboards are not really innovative in their design. They are a throwback to earlier keyboards, and not innovative designs to make typing easier, more comfortable, or more ergonomic.

Where does that leave us?

No doubt the rise of notebooks and tablets have shrunk the market for good ergonomic keyboards. Even though notebooks have keyboards, and there are many keyboards designed for tablets, in both cases those keyboard aspire to be thin and flat, putting other considerations to a very second-tier in their design.

Beauty and the Geek Keyboard
Beauty and the Geek Keyboard

The only interesting keyboard I’ve seen recently is more satire than product. It was created by a Dutch design team called Nieuwe Heren, and it’s a keyboard built into a pair of pants. They call it Beauty and the Geek. Not practical, not ergonomic, not comfortable, but interesting at least.

What interesting keyboards have you seen created in the past ten years? I do wonder what the total number of keyboards produced is today compared to twenty years ago. Sure, as a percentage of computing devices, ones that use external keyboards are a much smaller percentage than two decades ago, but there are also a lot more computer users today than there were twenty years ago. Also, considering the premium the advanced ergonomic keyboards like Maltron bring, you’d think that even as a niche, there must be room for innovation when there are companies that exist selling keyboards for more than $500.

So what innovative keyboards have I missed that have been designed in the last ten years? What keyboard do you use? Is there a keyboard you used in the past that you wish there was a modern equivalent to?

p.s. If I left your favorite ergonomic keyboard, maybe Goldtouch, SafeType, Fentek, or any one of the many other keyboard designs I apologize in advance. There is not room nor time to discuss every product in existence.

The end