I don’t recall ever trying any ergonomic keyboards. And given all their layouts appear to use QWERTY and such, I have no intention to.
My keyboard concept was born out of my many annoying experiences with typing and coding, but based predominantly on my attempts to find a layout that worked best in a particularly demanding video game.
~1.8k word story about the origins of the layout, and a little ranting.
Consider in an FPS that three of the five members on your hand will be relegated to directional control, another probably for jumping, and the last for crouching/walking. But you’re not always doing those three. Perhaps you may need to heal, or open a door, or do a combination of things.
Now, you say your pinkies’ll be screaming, and yet, if you look at the requirements of most people’s right pinkies when typing, they have a great deal of responsibilities, what with having to ‘backspace’, ‘enter’, ‘shift’, along with some punctuation, and if you’re a coder, those parenthesis and arithmetic symbols must also be used quite frequently. So I think it’s fair to say that our pinkies are very capable, but only one is being pushed, and I believe slightly too far at that.
So if our pinkies are ideal for doing other things, great. But it’s on the wrong side with limited options! And your thumb has range of movement, but will have immense trouble reaching up, as well as run into conflicts with the ‘spacebar’ if you really try.
You can attempt to off load responsibilities to your mouse, but they only have so many buttons. So instead, you have to temporarily sacrifice one of the fingers dedicated to directing your avatar. And doing that means having to pick and choose when it’s appropriate, so as to minimise chances of being punished, because the only keys left available are those upwards, below, and to the right. The sacrifice is usually small, but it’s silly. Silliness that could be avoided if there were a way to spread the load out between your pinky and thumb.
With the goal to eliminate that, I decided I’d try shifting directional controls into the centre of my keyboard, finally providing options for my pinky. The new layout wasn’t ideal due to the parallel nature of the rows, and I could get lost early on, but things got better and it kind of worked! Thus solidifying my belief that having lots of pinky keys isn’t a bad idea. Unfortunately there was one thing I missed. I would find at times I wouldn’t get a response when I was sure I’d pressed the correct key. Turned out, I had overlooked the signal limit!
Disappointed, I did some research, and learned that WASD is used because it’s extremely unlikely, if not impossible, to create a signal conflict using it in a typical video game.
Relearning that my laptop had this limit, but being unable to figure out what the exact criteria was for hitting it, I thought, “If there is a conflict by having directional keys in the centre, perhaps there could be somewhere else I could place them that just threads the needle between activating it”. So I wasn’t ready to give up just yet, but this current game also wasn’t serious enough for me to bother trying. It wasn’t until this next game did I decide to really pursue it.
3D shooting games, to me, create some of the most complex environments in which to play, having to juggle, not just lateral and longitudinal position and velocities, but also those vertical too, though admittedly to a lesser degree. All that combined with perspective control simply means many things to manage from the get go. I’m sure you have numerous titles that come to mind. But there’s one I know of in particular that goes just that bit further than most.
Movie Battles II, a free, multiplayer, community driven mod of Raven’s own Jedi Academy, which already combined strong gun play with complex saber combat and magic powers, along with options to switch to either 1st or 3rd person view at will, thanks in part to Quake III.
That wasn’t satisfying enough for these folks however, who not only decided to add to, modify, or rebuild each of those combat systems, but also, add a hand to hand combat system, advanced mobility options, a plethora of customisable character options, some of which with many more weapons than you might traditionally carry in other games, and finally a huge quick speech system; off the top of my head.
With all that said, what you’re left with is a game that sounds, plays, and feels like no other. It is incredibly complex and nuanced, making it highly unforgiving, and extremely difficult to master. But that still didn’t stop people trying. And over time, people did manage, turning the higher levels of gameplay into almost an art form.
But, while it’s great fun, and at times awesome to watch, it’s even more fun to play. And having dabbled before, I had a good idea of what I needed. But after taking stock of what I wanted to control, I now required every key I could possibly find if I wanted to really play the game. The perfect reason to suss out that ideal control scheme.
So I began by going through every WASD like possibility I thought reasonable, to find the ideal layout. But after shifting further and further right, I hadn’t found one single promising candidate.
So, I opened up my criteria a little and started looking into controls based on ERDF, like a game pad, but after it and its siblings all tripped up, I opened things up as wide as I could with 46TH and its brethren, a bow-like layout. I was looking for anything by this point. But even with that massive effort, just as before, they all failed…
I figured I’d give it one final go with a position I had overlooked, because, well… I did end up finding… something, on my fifth and final attempt. But, as you’re about to see, I had to make some “concessions”.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with WASD by now. But perhaps not for this. So get ready, for its wilted cousin seven generations removed! Now, introducing…
Yes, you see it right! 9IOP, the future of all control schemes! So futuristic, you may have to place your hand more than halfway across the board, and even tilt the screen outwards slightly, just to make things comfortable enough to wield. And not only does it have a large number of pinky options, if you’re willing to move ‘Jump’ onto the mouse, it also comes with a whole load of thumb keys, all at your disposable! A small sacrifice for immense gaming potential!
With the orange coloured being the resting keys, and grey being proven unreliable, it actually worked! I was managing to pull off movement combos like never before. Able to swiftly switch to any mobility mode or weapon option without needing to panic browse with my scroll wheel, all at any time. Finally I could start to get to grips with the game, and get a feel for what I could and couldn’t do. And it felt good to use; no strains, aches, or pains. And if that couldn’t stop me, nothing could. I had gone toe to toe with my keyboard, and won. I felt like a God!
But I just knew, deep down, it was too good to be true; knew I hadn’t been thorough enough. I had assumed that what worked in light testing, worked in all cases, because no other candidate had managed to offer so much, and there were no more options left. But I checked again, very carefully, and lo and behold, a likely combination of movement keys would interfere with a couple of very important buttons. And while I found a work around.
Trying to make use of this would prove a step too far.
In a final last ditch effort, I brought out my NKRO keyboard and attempted to find a layout like 9IOP, but it had two fatal design flaws to my plans. It’s bumpiness and relatively sharp edges meant I couldn’t slide my thumb around. And it was very easy to get my pinky lost, with the comparatively large actuation distances, lots of deep gaps, and lack of solid feedback.
Perhaps you know of a game with even more complex control requirements, but I hope you can begin to see that, the vast majority of keyboards and mice combinations wouldn’t be able to fully immerse you into a game like this. It was after this that I decided I had been defeated. But, despite it, for my efforts, I was left with that partial layout of what “half” of a real gaming keyboard should perhaps look like, but no foundation worthwhile to develop it further with, since I had no interest in a stand-alone keyboard.
Thankfully, having kept an eye on FW since LTT first shed light upon it, their vision was captivating enough that I saw a possible intersection. I knew what I wanted, but it was always a question of whether FW, or really anyone, would be able to meet me somewhere in the middle. And now, with the addition of AMD chips and what looks to be promised in the FWL 16 with the details released, for the first time, things genuinely look tangible for me to finally have my perfect “enough” laptop.
So with that story, and scrappy diagrams, I hope it’s not too hard to understand what inspired the keyboard designs above, and that they are based heavily on those hard learned truths from games, about my own physicality, NKRO, and the QWERTY layout.
Also, to me at least, this means that the vast majority of manufacturers claiming their laptops are “gaming” oriented, really is just a marketing ploy. They may have the latest and greatest hardware, outputting large and crisp frames at high refresh rates, a serious cooling system to keep it all in check, and give you RGB with highlighted WASD keys on top, but if they don’t try to provide a sufficient enough of an interface for the gamer, they don’t deserve to claim it. What’s more, they even know it’s not ideal because they’ve provide extra keys on the left side for some of their machines. So I have high confidence in the extra pinky buttons in my design, especially now I may align them with their natural resting position and reach limits.
As for the game, MBII, if you intend to check it out, you’ll need to own a copy of Jedi Academy, and be aware that the quote, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” is not too far from the truth. But at the same time, you’ll never come across the type of shenanigans and absolute chaos that can ensue.
With the controls, they are complex but it’s not necessary to have good fluid control or fun. Also, be warned, the learning curve is beyond beyond as the population consists mostly veterans of the game over there.
With regards to the variety in key size, I don’t know exactly how it’s going to pan out if I make it that far. Their role is purely to aid in ease of reach and won’t be doing anything immensely special, which I imagine to be fine. I mean, the ‘backspace’ key is huge and special, but I still occasionally hit ‘enter’ (another special key) instead because it’s right up at the limit of what my pinky is capable of reaching, uncomfortably. These little ones should be much easier to reach, and, while a smaller target, I think “so long as the gaps between the keys are able to be felt, I can know where my pinky is”, so there shouldn’t be a problem of getting lost in it. And if I do, I imagine adding accents to the outer keys to feel like walls and corners should do the trick.
You’re right in that there are a lot of keys, 106 if I counted correctly, with more to come. But everything in that board layout contains all I’ve learned or believe to be better, so they should all have a good reason to exist. And having lots of keys isn’t a problem if you intend to make good use of them all. A quick count gives me ~41 keys of ~103 keys on my laptop I’d describe as of little to no common use. ~40% wasted.
This could be solved with layers I admit, and which I do intend to use. It’s just that, like all things, there will be trade-offs if I purely go that route. But this is an ultimate keyboard. My goal is no trade-offs at all. Performance and productivity at any cost, no matter how small the benefit. If I can drop that 40% unused down to 20% or 10% while also minimising toggling and shifting, that’s a win for me.
And this keyboard is not intended to be run of the mill, so it doesn’t surprise me if people find it different. It’s intended to serve a variety of common purposes, some unique, but all of which I feel have a good degree of convergence that no one appears to have considered. So its design won’t even attempt to align with any typical design philosophies or conventions people may already have, unless it has to.
I appreciate the interest nonetheless. It’s nice to share with others like yourself and get some feedback. For now, I just have to hope to get a little more from FW. I’m currently wondering if I may need to split my board into three chunks if the keyboard size modules are a max limit. Certainly doable. But till then, I’m blind.