Why is a keyboard shaped like a keyboard? Better yet, 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 organized 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.
As for the flat, rectangular shape of most modern keyboards, that’s mostly down to cost, desk space, and uniformity. There are plenty of odd-shaped keyboards out there if you look for them (pictured right), but they cost a lot more to make — and they generally require a lot more desk space, too. Uniformity means that you can easily move from one keyboard to another without having to relearn how to use it (the QWERTY standard helps a lot, too).
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.
Vincent primarily used laser cutting for the wood and acrylic prototypes, and 3D printing for the plastic prototypes. (Read: What is 3D Printing?) 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 use a Teensy, while the Mark 13 (and the final Kickstarted keyboard) use an Arduino Micro.
And so we finally reach Mark 13 (below). As you can see, the butterfly shape remained. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to tell if the center 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 all the luck. The world would definitely be a better place if there were more ergonomic keyboards for sale.