April 2012
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Keyboard Kraziness

Again, I spent far too much time looking at different keyboards. This time around, however, I can see that some people are progressing toward my latest ideal: The multi-touch surface with re-configurable keys. Mostly, I want to record all the cool things that I came across.

What’s wrong about what I currently have

Right now, the best board that I have is the Kinesis Freestyle. But I find it inadequate because the ESC key is too far away (VIM habits) and the qwerty letter ‘b’ is on the wrong hand. I’m a still in the process of switching to emacs, but since I use dvorak some of the keybidings are a bit off. For example, C-x is, for me Caps-Lock-b to a qwerty user. But that’s a stretch for the right hand, so I often type the x with my left hand. Kinesis freestyle doesn’t let me do that.

A review of what I found

First, and most awesomest, there’s Jason Giddings kickstarter project: Multi-Touch keyboard and Mouse. Although, design-wise, it’s really, really slick, I wouldn’t use it myself because I need the tactile feedback of actual buttons.

Second, there’s Steve Isaac’s and Brad Melmon’s kickstart project: Touchfire: The Screen-Top Keyboard for iPad. I really liked this project, because they showed a little taste of what they had to go through during development. They had some trouble with the polarity of the iPad speaker magnets in different models, which upset the magnetic attachments which keep the board in place. The had to develop and find a silicone rubber that would allow capacitive fingers to be sensed by the touch screen. The keys on the board had to be of a particular shape, it looked like they tested about 50 different variations. This one is most interesting to me because, I too have to figure out how to get keys to rest on top of a touch sensitive screen. Again, I wouldn’t use it myself, because I don’t care for the iPad.

Hackaday had an article about The magic keyboard which is composed of two magic trackpads. This is coming close to what I envision. The board is split, and each side is a multi-touch sensitive surface. Only three things missing: repositionable physical keys, software to configure the board, and large surface for each hand.

Hackaday also had an article about a teardown of the AXiS-49, a music keyboard. Most interesting here are the buttons. It seems that the board can be cloned, using cherry MX switches.

Hackaday had another article on a really crazy keyboard made of microswitches. This guy really went overboard. His only regret is placing the keys a little bit too far apart, not optimizing for finger travel distance.

Hackaday also had an article on the Humble Hacker Keyboard. This story is most inpiring, because the guy went through all the trouble (about $2k) of getting custom manufacturing. The build log mentions some of the places where he had to go to source the different parts.

Solving the touch sensitivity.

It seems that there are two paths to take:

  1. Frustrated internal Reflection.

    Drawback here is that it requires a camera to visualize the presses. Also, creating keys that you can rest your hands on, but not activate the sensor might be difficult. Would look very slik though, as shown by the Keyboard and Mouse combo above.

  2. Capacitive MultiTouch.

    The most promising project here is OpenMT which creates a flexible, open source multitouch surface. Still going to be alot of work to build it though. Perhaps there are pre-made ones that I can just order and play with. Will also have to figure out a way to have keys rest on the surface, yet still activate the capacitive sensor when struck.

My best bet with the keys is probably the Cherry MX’s, because they have a plunger that will descend past the base of the key itself, as shown by the AXiS-49 clone. The tip of the plunger will have to be a plastic that has capacitive response, while the surrounding part of the key base will have to be something like a sticky silicon rubber. This way the keys can be repositioned, yet maintain that position over time. I admit, it would be really cool to have a glass version. Especially, if that means you can make yourself several glass plates, and sawp them out for different applications. Some gamer keyboards target that desire.

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