Chorded Keyboard: F1rst Pr1nt

I recently bought a 3d printer (makerbot replicator 2…story to come soon) and I have been playing around with printing some chorded keyboard chassis.

MKI

IMG_4561

This is the first prototype. The Z axis of the print is away from the pad of my hand, and perpendicular to the cross bar int he back.  I was concerned about rigidity, and the size of the print.  Overall, it is not horribly uncomfortable, but it raised several issues.  Obviously, this thing is tiny in comparison to my hand.  Unfortunately, it is pushing the build area limit on the printer.  Second are the thumb buttons.  This is a 7 key-board, inspired by the spiffchorder and BAT keyboards.  As they are, the thumb buttons are going to be miserable here.  I will have to modify it.  Also, there is no way to keep this thing from moving without a base.  This is bad, because right now there is no “base” connection.

MKII

IMG_4566

Here is the second concept.  It is meant to be used, stationary on a desk, like a trackball mouse.  Here is the print in my hand:

IMG_4567

The shape and layout is pretty comfortable, especially because I adjusted the key spacing to be that of my hand when it is at rest.  I ahve noticed that my ring and middle fingers touch when my hand is relaxed, while my pinkie and index fingers are .5-.75″ away from their neighbors.  I also adjusted the heights  to match my fingers.

I also decided to do away with the 3 thumb keys, and to replace it with something like a D-pad or three position switch.  that way, my thumb doesn’t have to move much, which should help hold the keyboard steady.

IMG_4571

Unfortunately, the keyboard wells did not come out quite right.  Here, you can see the piece in the print orientation.  Note the copious amount of ABS strings hanging off the wells.  No good.  I told the slicer to generate support material, but to no avail.  That is something that will need to be fixed…

 

Chorded Keyboard: Why Build?

You may be asking “why not just buy a chorded keyboard?”.  The answer is simple: They are super duper expensive, and lack the features I desire.  Here is a rundown of what is out there:

The CyKey

from the cykey website

Infrared control with a huge dongle, for the low low price of only 74 pounds (112 USD).  This is a low cost chorded keyboard, by any means.  The annoying thing is the receiver- it is big, and it is infrared, so you need line of sight.  I don’t need wireless capability, but if I am going to have it, it will be in the gigahertz.

Infogrip BAT

From infogrips website

Possibly only available on ebay, Totally still available, new this is almost the thing I am going to re-create.  It is a 7-key chorded keyboard, which goes for somewhere between 150-200 on ebay.  To make it more complicated, they are “handed”, so I would have to wait for a lefty (on ebay).

Twiddler (2)

the twiddler 2, from the twiddler website

Nothing about this looks comfortable, and it is 200 CAD!  It is also a thumb-mouse, but I already have a nice mouse, thankyouverymuch.  Not that integrating a mouse is a bad idea.

Well, that sums it up for things that you can buy.  There might be a few more out there, (frogpad is one of them), but I can’t find them for sale.  So the solution is to build one!  Plus, I just bought a 3d printer, so I can get some experience using it for prototyping.

My Chorded Keyboard Vision

I am building a one handed chorded keyboard, which is exactly what it sounds like.  It is a keyboard, but instead of using the qwerty layout, it uses chords of keys as input.

The main reason I want to build a one handed chorded keyboard is because it would be convenient.  A few of the advantages I see are that it will be smaller, cheaper, and will reduce the amount of devices that I use to interact with my computer.

Lets look at a typical interaction with my laptop, which is my primary computer (my other computer is my phone).  I have 6 input devices to choose from.  They are:

  • built-in trackpad
  • built-in nub mouse
  • built in nub mouse keys
  • built in trackpad mouse keys
  • tray-style keyboard
  • logitech mouse (wireless)

my laptop interface

This is already looking bad.  First off, there is a triple redundancy in the pointer category.  second, the nub is useless as a normal pointer, because its left button is underneath my left thumb when my left hand is on the home row.  the nub mouse buttons are also extra-super-hard to push, so you don’t accidentally push them with your thumb.  The trackpad has a similar problem in that it is crammed in there near the spacebar, and sometimes it gets pressed by my thumb and does weird stuff.  To add insult to injury, the keys are huge dust collectors, and can jam if they get a big enough piece of stuff in there, which happens frequently with little pieces of 26 gauge wire insulation which is just big enough to slip into the gaps.

On the other hand, the logitech mouse is a joy to use, provided you have a large flat surface to work on.  However, I prefer the logitech trackball mouse (m570), because you don’t need to move it at all and it is larger and more comfortable for my hand.  That said, the build quality of the m570 is sub par, and it feels kind of cheap-o.

So lets look at a pretty common workflow for solidworks.  I start out left hand on the keyboard, right hand on the mouse.  Thats great for clicking around, but eventually I need to enter a number.  Then the dreaded top-row numbers come into play.  lets say I need to enter “23.43”.  The “.” button is way over by my right hand, with the arrow keys, enter, and backspace.  So in order to enter something, I have to move my left hand across my body to those keys, which my left hand does not normally type on.  So instead, I end up moving my right hand to the keyboard, and then back to the mouse, and back and forth, and there are numkeys, and shifts and lot of moving.  it is particularly annoying because I need to do this over and over again in my workflow.

Now lets think about writing code.  Alpha characters are pretty awesome on the querty layout, but { } [ ] | : ; ” ‘ ( ) = + -* all require a lot of right-hand movement, and a lot of them involve holding down shift.  While this has become second nature to me now, I would gladly swap a few alpha characters for those keys.  Or even have a querty[]{};:'” keyboard, with more keys!  QUERTY was designed for typists on typewriters, not computers.

crazy busy desk

Crazy busy desk.  This is a real picture of what my desk looks like.

This is my final whiney paragraph for this post, but take a look at this picture.  This is a real, in-use picture of my desk.  Look how many keyboards are on this desk.  There are THREE.  two laptops, and an external keyboard because the netbook kb is too small, and too far away, but there is barely room for the external keyboard because of all the crap!  To mouse on either of these machines is also a pain, and it means I have my wrist unsupported on the right, or I have to reach over a tangle of wires on the left.  On top of it all, I was barely even using the computers- they were mainly just for datasheets or running scripts.

With a chorded keyboard, I will be able to put my laptop veeeery far away and control everything through a chorded keyboard and mouse combo.  Even if the keyboard is utterly crappy, and can only type 2 wpm, it will be plenty good for looking at datasheets, or goggling something while I am at the bench.

GKOS Keyboard Adventures

Recently I have become interested in chorded keyboards.  I see them as an incredibly under explored option in computer interfacing, particularly for engineers or people who are bringing a computer into a workshop/bench workflow.  To attempt to get used to chording, I installed a chorded keyboard on my android phone.  It is called the GKOS keyboard.

The first thing I noticed was how huge the keyboard was.  It took up roughly 70% of my screen, which is saying something, since I have a galaxy note ii.  This means that when typing, I can really only see a few lines of text, which can be annoying.  On the other hand, the keys are enormous! Instead of the tiny fingertip sized keys that normally adorn such keyboards, the large keys are roughly .5″ wide by .75″ tall!

Huuuuuggeee keys.

There is the keyboard.  As you can see, the “home” keys are very non-standard.  However, they are certainly the most used keys.  This makes it convenient and easy to type.  After a few days, I found that I was speeding up, although I was still lagging behind my querty-thumb-pecking speed.

The major downfall of this keyboard is actually the form factor of the modern phone.  While it is kind of fun to use, it is extremely uncomfortable on phones without a large bezel.  This is because the natural position of the thumb is somewhat relaxed, and the comfortable way to type would be to pivot your thumb around the base joint.

In portrait mode, the problem comes in that my thumb is a little longer than half the screen, and to hold the phone securely I have to have by hand across the back of it.  This means that in order to get my thumb on the keys, I have to curl my thumb up for the entire time.  This makes it very uncomfortable.  In landscape mode, it is slightly more comfortable, because it is easier to hold the phone, but still, the keys are right at the edge of the screen.

The other issue I had is that the keyboard is not one-handed, especially on my huge phone.  I want a one handed chording keyboard!

I enjoyed using it, but I have switched back to my querty.  The keys are now painfully small, and my pecking seems weird compared to the elegant chording on the GKOS, but I am faster and more comfortable while using it.