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Building a new and improved keyboard from scratch

Why is a keyboard shaped like a keyboard? Better still, why are all of the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and some punctuation, arranged in four slightly diagonal rows of keys – and more importantly, why has the layout of the keyboard gone almost unchanged in 100 years? There must be a really good reason, right? Wrong.

For the most part, keyboards have looked virtually the same because… that’s how they’ve always looked. The first “modern” mechanical keyboards, which started to emerge around 150 years ago, had mechanical linkages between each key and a striker – a rod of metal, with a piece of metal type at the end, that imprinted that key’s letter on the page.

To prevent the linkages from getting tangled, they had to be offset slightly so that they each had their own plane to move in. If you look at your keyboard right now, there’s a very good chance that not a single key (from the alphanumeric block) lines up vertically.

It is not a coincidence that newer areas of the keyboard – parts that were invented after the typewriter, such as the function keys and the right-hand numpad – are aligned in a matrix grid.

Virtual keyboards, such as on your smartphone or tablet, are also organised in a grid. Incidentally, there are some people who say that a matrix layout is easier to type on and causes less strain on your joints, but sadly there are very few keyboards that offer non-staggered keys. This is what we call path dependence.

A new keyboard from scratch

In short, due to historical precedent and other meatspace constraints, your computer’s keyboard is probably pretty crappy. If you started afresh and set out to make the best keyboard you could possibly make – in terms of typing speed, comfort, and ergonomics – you would end up with something very different indeed. Something that looks like this:

The above keyboard, the one at the top of the story, and the keyboards shown below, were designed by Jesse Vincent, who’s trying to make the perfect keyboard. Once he works out the final design, it sounds like he will use Kickstarter to sell a keyboard under the Keyboard.IO brand. The Kickstarted keyboard will probably look a lot like the keyboard at the top of the story, which Vincent refers to as Mark 13. The heart-shaped keyboard is Mark 5.

In case you’ve ever wondered why ergonomic keyboards are generally split in the middle: Your wrists aren’t naturally perpendicular with your keyboard when you’re seated; they’re slightly angled. Twisting your wrists to be “square” with the keyboard can cause repetitive strain injuries.

The above keyboard is the Mark 3 – fashioned with laser-cut plywood, it used mechanical keys in a rudimentary ergonomic “split” layout. The thumb keys turned out to be rather uncomfortable… and so it was back to the drawing board.

Vincent primarily used laser cutting for the wood and acrylic prototypes, and 3D printing for the plastic prototypes. The key switches are mechanical (Cherry MX Blues we assume), and the key caps are just commodity caps that Vincent had access to. Inside each keyboard is a programmable microcontroller that provides a USB interface, so that the DIY keyboards can be plugged into a PC. The early keyboards used a Teensy, while the Mark 13 (and the final Kickstarted keyboard) use an Arduino Micro.

The above model is the Mark 6, with a 3D-printed base (that took 12 hours to print), and 3D-printed hand plates (3 to 4 hours each) with mechanical keys. The design is slightly “tented” (raised in the middle), for improved ergonomics. The gaps between the columns were too wide, resulting in uncomfortable splaying of the hands.

Above is the Mark 9, which was printed with ABS plastic, and utilises two linked halves joined by a ball joint to allow for separation and tenting for ergonomics. In practice, the ball joint didn’t work well enough unless it was on a flat, hard surface.

And this is the Mark 11. Vincent’s 3D printer caught fire making Mark 10, so he returned to layered acrylic for Mark 11. By this point, he’s starting to finalise the location of the keys and the distance between the keys for maximum comfort. This design ended up being too heavy, and the inner butterfly shape cut into his wrists.

And so we finally reach the Mark 13 (pictured below). As you can see, the butterfly shape remained. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to tell if the centre of the keyboard is raised in the middle (tented), but based on Vincent’s previous designs we assume that’s the case. The lowest buttons, on the palm rests, are actually palm keys – keys that you can activate by pushing down with the fleshy bit at the base of your thumb. You can see the Arduino Micro at the top, beneath a layer of clear acrylic.

So, there you have it. It sounds like Vincent is happy enough with Mark 13 that he will now prepare it for mass production, through a process called design for manufacturability (DFM). So far, every key switch has been hand-wired – the final version, of course, will have to use a printed circuit board (PCB) that needs to be designed. A final, hard-wearing material needs to be chosen for the keyboard’s chassis, too.

Vincent has some hard work ahead to make his butterfly keyboard ready for commercial sale, but we wish him luck. The world would definitely be a better place if there were more ergonomic keyboards for sale.

Image Credit: Jesse Vincent