Keyboard Builders' Digest / Community
RominRonin and his symmetric layouts
In this interview I asked RominRonin about the katana layout, his Katana60 PCBs, the upcoming Tsuka60, and a lot more!
Published October 27, 2022
In this series I ask revered members of the community. Recent interviews: Pekaso, Khawar Ahmed and Sadnan from the Bangladeshi community and ergohaven's Evgeny.
This time we talked with Baris Tosun aka RominRonin (Github), who is a web developer living in Austria, and the designer of various symmetric row-staggered layouts like the Katana.
I stumbled upon his name in 2018 on Geekhack and have identified it with these symmetric layouts since then. So I was pleasantly surprised to see his comment on reddit after referencing his work in the Infernum post.
During this interview I discovered that he is not only a very nice guy, but also that we have a lot in common. Still, wrapping up this piece took almost two months because in the meantime he had a baby boy (congrats!), our chat at some point seemed like I became the interviewee :D, and just before the finish line I contracted covid...
Anyway, ladies and gents, here is the excerpt of our conversation with rominronin about his original Katana, the Katana60 PCBs, the upcoming Tsuka60, and a lot more!
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Baris Tosun. I’m a web developer, specializing in Drupal. I work at blinker.digital in Austria.
When I see a katana layout, your name comes immediately to mind. But have we crossed paths before? I dipped my toes into customs and splits in 2018. Maybe around those times?
The name rings a bell, but I can’t remember, I’m from London originally, but since I’ve been in the community, I’ve been Austria based.
So an Englishman in Austria? That sounds interesting. Is there a romantic plot twist or was this a rather boring professional/business decision?
Romantic plot twist, lol. Yeah I moved here to avoid a long distance relationship with my Austrian girlfriend. I’d say it worked out since we’re married and have kids now!
Aah, I knew it! :D Congrats. How can she tolerate your keyboard obsession?
It’s a novelty that she can tease me about. ;) I have a hobbies budget, so long as I don’t venture too far outside of that, she doesn’t care.
Back in 2018 when I stumbled upon the katana layout your natural habitat seemed to be geekhack. In what communities are you active now?
I’ve been a member of GH, DT and r/MK since at least 2015, nowadays I browse r/MK mostly, since the birth of my daughter I have had much less time for keyboards in general. Unfortunately.
I am active on discord, there is a new Katana60 forum thread on the CandyKeys server. I’m idling on various other servers too, keyboard and non-keyboard related.
I’m also planning to record some music related spoken content – an audio podcast, but the birth of my second child is imminent, so it won’t be soon!
Btw, how and when did you get involved in the mechanical keyboard hobby? Given the explosion during the lockdown we both belong to a minority of living fossils in the scene, but I know you started much earlier than me.
I have been interested in alternative input devices for a long time before I entered the mechanical keyboards community.
Some time around 2015 I joined geekhack. Seeing what others had done with mechanical keyboards inspired me to create a ‘fixed’ M-SNEK (Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4K), I created a prototype called the katana (more photos and info).
Around the same time I discovered r/mk and Deskthority, today’s communities are built upon the great work done by users of those forums (at least in the English speaking world) – and we have a lot to thank them for.
Back to the story – my prototype worked wonderfully, but it too was a compromise, and like others in the community, I wanted to build my own PCB. So I started learning KiCAD.
While developing the next version I realized I could fit the layout in a meaningful way into a standard, 60% case. I felt that prices in the community were too high to be accessible, so I set myself the target of compatibility with standard keysets. That project took my focus and eventually became the Katana60.
I have to give a big shoutout to David at CandyKeys, who I met at a meetup in Vienna. He agreed to produce the PCB and stock it on his site [feel free to use the KBDNEWS discount code]. Without his support the Katana60 would be nothing more than another prototype on my desk.
So in summary, the Katana60 layout came out of the desire to fix the asymmetry of the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.
Do you have some stats about the Katana60 PCB? How many of them could be out there?
We produced 2 rounds of 100x boards, I wish there were more, but compared to boards like the Planck, the Katana60 just wasn’t that popular.
I have also gifted a very small number of prototypes – that’s really it.
From ergo point of view, especially ulnar deviation, the katana layout seems to make more sense than an ortho keyboard or the classic horizontally staggered one. Did you come up with your arrangement by yourself, or were there other similar projects out there serving as inspiration?
Again, my inspiration all along was the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. I really felt the right hand side was perfect, so even when I tried technically 'more ergonomical' layouts like the ergodox, atreus, even the dactyl, asked myself how it was possible that a flatter, row staggered layout could feel as comfortable (in some cases, more comfortable) than something that follows the shape of the hand more carefully.
The truth is that ergonomics is about more than just fitting the shape of your hand. Like it or not, people find comfort in standard layout keyboards. But the point is that we all sit at our desks in a different way. The height of the desk, the angle of our forearms, our posture, the distance to the keyboard itself (and the time we spend using keyboards) all vary from person to person.
The MSNEK 4K is designed with the classic 'limbs at 90 degrees, monitor top in line with the eyes' seating posture in mind. The Katana60 follows the same cue, and it is most comfortable in that posture.
I tried prototyping 40% variants, but they were not as comfortable. All of a sudden, the angle between your two forearms becomes acuter. The distance between the left and right sides of a Katana60 serves a secondary function of keeping your hands slightly further apart, maintaining that comfortable typing angle.
I came to these conclusions with a combination of obsessive study of the MSNEK 4K and any other keyboard I got a hold of, and a hell of a lot of trial and error. I racked up a lot of prototypes, sometimes just for fun, but mostly to form a basis of comparison.
Only later I found that the idea was not unique at all. Fellow Geekhack user Bpiphany created the Blue Pill board (2015), and there was the Japanese MicroTron (2007). I tried to get my hands on one, but no luck!
[ed: for similar layouts see also my Reuters (1985) and Takeshi Nishio's contemporary Jones and Nora.]
Commercial exploration of the ergonomic keyboard space is nothing new, but the pressure to sell such boards wasn't met by the demand in them. The strength of our community is that it brings together people with the passion to develop practical solutions with those who have a need for them.
What about the Japanese references like ronin, katana and tsuka?
I started karate around 95/96 and have been interested in the psychological aspect of combat and sports in general. I read a number of related books which impacted me greatly. One of these books was called Hagakure – from Wikipedia:
“Written during a time when there was no officially sanctioned samurai fighting, the book grapples with the dilemma of maintaining a warrior class in the absence of war and reflects the author's nostalgia for a world that had disappeared before he was born.”
This fantasy of ronin – samurai with no master – roaming the land dedicated to personal betterment and pushing themselves to be the best they can be; this inspired me greatly and inspired the handle rominronin.
The Katana name fit since it was the tool of the samurai, a tool which they might have trained with religiously, with the aim of reaching technical perfection.
For me, buying a mechanical keyboard is the first step, you should then invest time in understanding your patterns of use, and adapting some known layers to fit your needs, in a repeating pattern of improvement.
And how does your setup look like these days? Which keyboard/switches/caps – and layout – do you daily drive or prefer in general?
OK, so across all my boards I use the Colemak Mod DH layout, I’ve tried Dvorak and Vanilla Colemak too, but this is the layout that works best for me.
In the office I use a Katana60, with GMK Pulse. The switches are Gateron Black Inks, unlubed and the whole thing is housed in a black KBDFans 5 Degree case.
I'm lucky enough to have a home studio for music production, which is where I use a beige HMKB 75 with GMK 9009 caps on a set of Novelkeys Silks (milkshake/recoloured yellows).
Finally, I have a home office space (apart from the studio room), where I switch between my remaining boards. Until recently I was using my black ISO GMMK Pro with Geekark 9009, but today I just finished my custom black HMKB 60, which contains a special, one-off, RGB Tsuka prototype. This one has Zealio V1 Redux switches, for the ultimate ergoclear experience.
[Check out this imgur gallery for more photos.]
Were you aware of the Infernum project or similar ones with katana(ish) layouts?
I wasn’t aware of the Infernum project, but I’ve generally been supportive of katana-like layouts when I’ve seen them. The more people in the community who use them, the easier it will be to convince keycap designers to support the odd keycaps that they require.
That has been my main frustration with the Katana60; getting a keyset that supports it 100%, with the right profile on each row can be expensive (of course if you can keep it really cheap by ignoring the profile or using uniform profile keysets).
The Tsuka60 has better support and is aesthetically the better of the two imo. That project has stalled since I became a father. Having a mortgage and now a second child has diverted my attention away from these projects.
Right now though, I have some spare time again to work on the Tsuka60, in fact I’m currently working on a hot swappable version of both that and the Katana60. Follow the GH thread for updates.
One final thing that I’d like to include is that fluxlabs created a split PCB called the Zplit which was also a Katana60 type layout.
I own two of them and even created a custom case based on my original vision of an improved MSNEK 4K clone. It’s a great feeling board, although there are still some improvements I’d like to make. If anyone wants to support me by designing a proper unibody case for it and even helping to organise a group buy, I’d be interested in talking!
After answering my questions, RominRonin told me that this whole interviewing process has got him looking at what he have achieved and that he doesn’t want the Tsuka60 project to stall any longer. He started speaking with CandyKeys again, getting the ball rolling on the Tsuka60 and some new hotswap versions of Katana60. If you are interested, you can find him on the CandyKeys discord server, on the Katana60 thread.
Published on Thu 27th Oct 2022. Featured in KBD #100.
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