Morgan Venable and his Svalboard
An interview with Morgan Venable, creator of Svalboard, who talks about his awesome project and the reinvention of the Datahand keyboard.
Published August 24, 2023
The Datahand is such a weirdo, but still makes a lot of sense. It's high on my list of retro stuff I know I'll never be able to acquire. How did you come across it?
I bought my first Datahand rig in 2002 after a typhoon soaked my old MS Natural on the way to work in Fuchinobe, Japan, where I was interning at the time. It totally fixed my typing RSI. Completely.
I really buy into the basic thesis that we do way too much physical work to type – human hands are quite fragile, and even more so in the repetitive stress injury RSI - prone portion of the population, which grows ever larger as more and more people write software for a living.
How long did it take to develop the design?
About 8 months? When one of my precious Datahand units got damaged during travel in summer 2022, I got serious about building a replacement. Then I learned about JesusFreke’s lalboard project.
I built one (with lots of help from JesusFreke), and immediately knew it was worth taking farther. Svalboard is a production evolution of the core key mechanism concept of the lalboard.
That was August 2022 – and in April 2023 I sold the first Svalboard Alpha units. I work fast when I get the bit between my teeth, I guess.
Svalboard’s main steps forward are:
- A unique fitment system that can adapt optimally to any hand size and finger anatomy.
- A dramatically improved center key that never sticks and has print-time-customizable force.
Tell me about the name?
It refers to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, with a tip of the hat to lalboard. :D I think of Svalboard as preserving and evolving the Datahand lineage for future generations.
I’m committed to a living design which can always be repaired, updated and modified by product owners:
- All mechanical parts can be produced on a hobby-grade 3D printer or SLA machine.
- All pinouts are available if you want to hack your own electrical modifications.
- And I sell replacement PCBAs.
Could you point out the main differences between typing on the Svalboard and more traditional keyboards?
90% less physical work! And a magical tactile magnetic key force profile!
The critical differences from most keyboards: The N/S/E/W keys tilt outwards, you just brush them sideways with your fingertips. The center keys feel more traditional, but with the same magnet breakaway profile.
- 5-key finger clusters
- 5-key thumb clusters
- Ultralight forces (~20g)
- 100% tactile profile – the first movement after 20g is total breakaway
- 90% less physical work (really!)
The lateral movements are different, but easy enough to learn, and you can always remap keys to suit the movements your own hands prefer.
The thumb clusters have 5 keys each plus a two-stage press on the down key, so you can really let your thumbs do the heavy lifting with modifier keys. 3-key combos are possible with a single thumb.
What are the usual first reactions of users and what to expect on the longer term?
Datahand was renowned for its dedicated user base and longevity. The older folks still using DH (most of us are 40+ at this point…) are incredibly committed to it. They’re still using rigs older than a lot of your readership! The concept really delivers.
So I’m not totally surprised that I’ve gotten really great reviews from the early customers:
“Ergonomic poetry” – Piotr in Poland (full review). “The best keyboard I’ve ever used” – Jesus in California.
“Going back to my old keyboard from the svalboard feels like I have to smash every keypress. really liking the svalboard, this is fantastic”
“Most letters on the svalboard are exactly where I expect them to be and feel like they're only a thought away due to the short travel distance. it's really, really neat” – Dinan in Massachusetts.
“I've used a number of ergonomic keyboards but nothing has felt right like this” – Spider in Washington.
But they are also adapting faster than I expected – many are shifting to use Svalboard at work within a week or two, and most others at 3-4 weeks!
Eventual typing speeds will generally equal your best speed on other keyboards. With 90% less work, and dramatically less injury and inflammation!
Could you tell us about the inner mechanism of the switches?
The side keys really are JesusFreke’s genius. The keys just sit in the wells, and when you push them, the key magnet and the well magnet are separated and the force falls away.
The force profile drops off SUPER fast. It’s crazy tactile. This means your fingers have no incentive to hammer down looking for positive feedback, and everything stays super light.
When you release, they snap back together with a satisfying click.
There’s a little retention feature so they don’t go flying, but no other hinges or hardware!
The center key is my own design, with that same steep force dropoff and 20g force.
Forces can be tuned by offsetting magnets more in the printed keys, so you can go even lighter (or heavier) if you desire.
I like how customizable the Svalboard is. I can imagine you can set it up for a bunch of different hand sizes and finger lengths.
Yes! This is truly the core of the design – it can accommodate just about every human hand from adolescents on up. So far I have users with pretty tiny hands all the way up to basketball-player sizes, too. And they can all use the same device (once adjusted).
Thermoformable, Adjustable Palmrests – X/Y/Yaw adjustment for hand size, and can be modified for different heights, too. If you want to use something different, the sled design is easy to adapt for gel pads or any other rest you want to use or make yourself. I even have a retro carrier for the original DH palmrests!
Fingers – X/Y/Z/Yaw/Roll adjustment for perfect anatomical fit.
Tenting – The design has about 6-15 degree tenting adjustment inherently, and supports M5 legs, fixed printed tents, and standard 1/4-20 camera hardware for any angle you want.
Fingertips – three sizes, 14, 16, 18 mm widths. Default is 16. I love the super snug 14 mm fit!
Talk to me about keycap customization for Svalboard – what options are there?
The customization options are infinite. They’re 100% customizable at build time… even the forces can be changed by printing a different magnet offset! I provide STLs and STEP files for customers who want to customize shapes, too, but so far I’m doing all the key assembly myself.
I do full custom colors for all my Alpha customers – keys, clusters, palmrests, cases, everything. I love the colorful expression, the playfulness of it:
How customizable is the keymap?
Default layouts are QWERTY-ish, Dvorak-ish, and Colemak-ish. Numbers are on the home row, symbols above, and there’s a function/nav layer as well.
Svalboard runs Vial-QMK by default, so you have 100% freedom. Real-time remapping with tap-dance is AMAZING. There is also a vanilla QMK fork if you want to go that route.
I can’t wait to see what people come up with!
Here’s the basic QWERTY layout for the main alpha layer:
The original DataHand cost about $1295 (yikes!) – in the '90s. The Svalboard is "just" $750, but this price is still quite steep. Can you talk about that?
We all know that cheaping out on the important things (mattress, chair, keyboard, cheese, etc) is usually a bad idea. Your career and your health are hard to put a price on.
If you account for inflation, this product now costs about a quarter of what it did in 1990 dollars. That’s an amazing testament to globalization and additive manufacturing. It’s incredible what one person can do today!
And Svalboard is so much better than Datahand I can’t even go back to my old rigs anymore. I tried to do a full day on one of my old DH rigs recently and it felt like such a big step backwards in comfort, I had to quit after the morning.
Helping people find relief from pain is the core mission here. Volume and lower prices can only come when you’ve proven the concept in the market and only if the market is big enough. I hope I can get there someday! I believe it’s possible with some real volume, but… this isn’t a 40,000-unit product like Moonlander.
But there's a recently introduced trial program available?
Yes! Despite the above, my goal is to make Svalboard available to everyone I can.
I offer a very generous trial/return policy, where your full custom device is returnable minus a refurb fee of $100/month, assuming it’s returned in functional and clean condition.
If that plunge is too big, a very limited number of rental units are available at $200/mo (plus shipping costs). Some portion of that will be applicable towards a purchase.
This is a very early offering and terms will evolve as I figure out what works for people and for the business.
How long is the waiting list?
The wait time is about 2 weeks right now. I still work directly with every customer to help assess their overall ergo needs and their specific needs from Svalboard in that context. I’ve met so many lovely people so far, and I’m looking forward to meeting many more!
Final call to action?
Dear Readers: Datahand changed my life, and I want Svalboard to change more. I am so proud of it, and also so humbled by the lovely reviews and constructive feedback I’ve received so far.
And always feel free to contact @ _claussen on the Discord with any questions, I’m happy to answer them and it’s a great little community.
Published on Thu 24th Aug 2023. Featured in KBD #202308.