Keyboard Builders' Digest / Advent Calendar
Year of the Ortho: sporewoh's 2022
Christian Lo (a.k.a. sporewoh), a rabid ortholinear fan, outlines his experimental projects and provides a behind the scenes look of his highlights of the year.
Published December 4, 2022
I want to give a thank you to Tamas for reaching out to me about, as well as a thank you to the DIY keyboard community, who have been nothing but kind, curious, and passionate.
My name is Christian, though I tend to go by the alias of sporewoh for these kinds of things. My current schtick is that I’m a big fan of ortholinear keyboards, and that I try to bias towards making open-source experimental keyboard designs. Over this past year, I’ve gotten to explore the hobby of custom keyboards, from learning electronics, CAD, firmware etc. This article will retread through this year’s projects, as well sprinkle in a narrative of my personal thoughts. I hope to use this article to give interested readers a “behind the scenes” look at my projects, my current direction, as well as my love for ortholinear keyboards :).
The youwu36 was the first keyboard I ever made, which was around in March of this year. I was using a Planck back then, and absolutely loved its compact form factor. I made the youwu36 since I had a paranoia that ortholinear keyboards were on its way out, considering that keyboards like the Niu Mini and the M50-A keyboards were being discontinued, and I wasn’t sure if Drop would do the same with the Planck. Looking back, I think it was a little extreme to worry about such a thing, though it was fun nonetheless to make something I could call my own.
Fun fact: I made this keyboard effectively a 4x10 since that was the only way I could have printed my case with my Ender3. I was moving at the time, so I hyper optimized portability the same way some people in this community hyper optimize for sound, ergonomics, or key count. Little did I know this layout choice would affect all later keyboards to come.
The banime40 is a refinement of the youwu36. It’s a 4x10 ortholinear with hotswap sockets and gasket mounting. One of the gimmicks with it is that there’s several layouts you can use with it, and later revisions allow for rotary encoders. It was an awesome project to get me to hone in on my ability to work with CAD and basic PCB design.
I was getting fairly good at typing on a 4x10 at this point, and I loved how portable and compact it was. I think one of big draws of ortholinears in general for me is the fact that they are the most optimized for space: you get the most keys for a given amount of space.
Fun fact: I had made it since I wasn’t particularly good with home row mods when I was playing around with the 36 key layout Miryoku. I have instead opted to use my homebrew 4x10 layout, which is a bit of a fusion between the Miryoku and the OLKB Planck layout. I have given this layout an equally elegant name: TypeBeastXD+ Home Edition.
I think the KBD article summed this up well, but the freaku4X was an experiment of moving the Pro Micro controller to the top of the board, rather than the bottom. One of the biggest challenges with designing an ortholinear keyboard is the same reason why I love it so much: almost all of the space on the pcb is used for keys, with little real estate for the microcontroller and other features. I added a rotary encoder and an oled display to take up some of the real estate created by the additional row for the microcontroller.
Fun fact: While I think some people really took to the design, the general popularity of the banime40 over the freaku4x felt to me as if either:
- people in the ortho community prefer compactness over frills such as OLEDs
- having a nice case was the major separator in the “quality” of a project
- some other factor(s) (feel free to reach out to me what your thoughts are on this, in a polite way of course)
In a pursuit of being even _more_ portable, I wanted to play around with low profile designs. Design wise, the keezyboost40 is one of my favorite projects of the year. It’s a low profile 4x10 with an LCD display, kailh chocs, and a Raspberry Pi Pico. I think my favorite part about this project is how all the elements come together to complement each other: the Pico is large but powerful and has castellated pins, the LCD is computationally expensive but can easily cover up the pico, etc.
The LCD also opens up the door of writing user programs on top of a keyboard firmware (e.g. games, macropad GUIs, tamagotchis, etc.), if I so choose to ever go down that rabbit hole.
Fun fact: This keyboard also highlights another aspect I love about ortholinears: It’d be hard to have something fun like a screen in the middle with a staggered row layout. I’m not the first to do this, but keyboards like tzarc’s Ghoul shows off what kind of fun you can have when you have a spot to put anything you’d like.
beyblock20 is a modular, magnetic, macropad system where each module can be chained together with an I2C bus. I had made this for the Seeeduino XIAO keyboard competition, and I thought the bus was kind of a cute way of making an actual keyboard despite having so few microcontroller pins.
I think the general concept really resonated with people, and this seems to be my most watched and starred project. The biggest challenge of this was writing firmware for this project. I had to write some code on top of KMK to get the modules to talk to each other via I2C. I am happy to report though, that this does currently seem to have full compatibility with KMK, and I can use the beyblock20 like a split ortho with TRRS jacks. Big shoutout to the awesome work and support the contributors have done with KMK, I highly recommend it if you’re looking to prototype a wild keyboard firmware idea.
If modular designs catch your interest, I highly recommend looking at Kiser’s upcoming board: Queso. My understanding at a glance is that it uses a round robin design, which in many ways circumvents the yucky hotswap/power challenges that comes with using an I2C bus. You can find information about it in the 40% Discord.
Fun fact: Modular keyboards are hard! There’s a lot of use edge cases a designer has to worry about since there’s a plethora of combinations of different modules, as well as a lot of different ways the user would want to interact with all of the modules. I hope someday someone can nail the concept, though if they’re using an I2C bus design, I have reservations that they will be able to solve every problem with the hardware or firmware, much less solve it well. As such, they better open source it so the community can fix the problems themselves!
For the sake of brevity, I have left out other projects I’ve worked on that are starting to roll out. Feel free to check my reddit for the latest updates though!
Upcoming Projects, reflection, and new year
Happy to say that I still have a few more fresh ideas for the upcoming year. I think the ones currently in the pipeline are refinements or additions of what seemed to stick this year.
In terms of learning skills, something I want to try is learning how to do integrated pcb design (i.e. no Pro Micros) as well as a better understanding of QMK internals, so that I can hopefully write user programs on top of it. I think portability and customizability are my favorite qualities of a keyboard, and I think both skills can help me push the boundaries of said qualities.
I think I might also want to pivot my strategy of releasing projects. This year has been a boom in terms of what I threw against the wall to see what stuck. While it gave me a good understanding of what worked and what didn’t, the issue with that strategy is that the cost of materials starts to ramp up and accumulate quickly, and I worry that I can now make designs fast enough to the point that finances are now the rate limiting factor for me. I think next year may see fewer projects, though I hope to invest more time into the ones that I do have. Alternatively, I start to consider different ways of subsidizing my hobby to become more sustainable. Being experimental and open source will continue to be the core of what I do though.
He didn’t tell me to write this, but I’m very grateful for all of the help Liam from PCBWay has given me. I wouldn’t have been able to make nearly as many projects this year without his support. On that note, if you would like to see more open source projects from me, or continued support for existing ones, please consider donating!
Finally, if you’d like to stay in the loop on new projects, as well as get a sneak peek of what’s in the works, or ask me any kind of questions, feel free to join my new discord channel!
Happy new year everyone! Here’s to another year of an awesome hobby!
Christian Lo (23)sporewoh
|Description||DIY Keyboard Maker|
|Niche||Ortholinear, ortholinear layouts, experimental designs|
|Fav. switch||Kailh Pro Red Chocs, Gazzew Bobagums, NK Yellows|
|Fav. keycap profile||Chosfox CFX, ASA, Cherry|
Published on Sun 4th Dec 2022. Featured in KBD #106.
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