Keyboard Builders' Digest
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Issue 162 / Week 15 / 2024

This is a hand-picked selection of last week's content from a keyboard enthusiast's perspective. Posts that may teach you something, make you think and contribute to the common knowledge of the DIY builder community.

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Contents

Editorial

Behind the scenes #162

Keyboard projects, quick news, in the mailbox, meetups, new vendors and discount codes!

Hey, what's up everyone!

I had some mild issues with my left index finger, had to take some rest, so that's why the belated weekly round-up.

Anyway, welcome back for another recap and behind-the-scenes write-up.

If you are new to kbd.news, you can read how this started out and what this is all about nowadays. If you like what you see, subscribe to the newsletter (free) and donate some bucks to keep this otherwise free and ad-free project alive.

Some posts worth sharing

Pic: TapXR

TapXR

  • I've been testing the wrist-worn TapXR, probably the most unlikely typing device I've ever witnessed: Keyboard, mouse & controller in one. It's a fun gadget but works best within its closed ecosystem. Only for seasoned early adopters, reliability needs to be improved.
  • Wysteria is jwe's split keyboard with lots of features.

Pic: Wysteria

Wysteria

Pic: Masonry

Masonry

  • The Masonry by dj_edit is another ergoish columnar keyboard projected on a rectangular keyboard shape.
  • Kai H. Chang's next design is the low-profile wireless Kai Simple split.

Pic: Kai Simple

Kai Simple

Pic: Key-sweep

Key-sweep

  • A keycap generator by Sam Hughes: key-sweep creates multi-axis contoured keycaps.
  • The PNCATEHO by aroum is a 10-key chording keyboard for Russian.

Pic: PNCATEHO

PNCATEHO

Pic: Glyphica

Glyphica

  • Warning! Highly addictive! Glyphica is a typing survival game by fellow community member Sharde aka xm-zhou/aliasBlack. Type to shoot, level up, survive & hoard coins to buy upgrades. Lots of upgrades. Typing does pretty everything, there is no secondary control mechanic (movement, mouse-aim, etc). The difficulty level of the free demo released last Friday is pretty easy, touch typers will grind on for an hour and get to about level 50-60 where the game crashes when running out of power-ups. :D To be fixed later I guess, but playing Glyphica is lots of fun anyway.

  • A handwired "split Preonic" made by vanlyndgen using two 6*5 switch testers.

Pic:

"Split Preonic"

Pic: URSA keycaps

URSA keycaps

  • I don't usually feature group buys, but URSA is different. Custom keycaps for Topre keyboards, brought to you by 23_Andreas and FKcaps.
  • SandwichRising published a new Keeb68 build log.

  • Closed source: Sweetkb by venisterkr with Gateron low-pro switches and NuPhy caps.

Pic:

"Sweetkb"

Keyboard art

Pic: Qazimodo

Qazimodo

  • La Somme (IC) is a Chiffre-like monoblock – in cerakoted aluminum or frosted acrylic, and with an interesting back profile (renders).

Pic: La Somme

La Somme

Pic: La Somme

La Somme

Donations

For all the donation options check out the donation page!

In the mailbox

A parcel from Zion Studios/Kulermats. Totally unexpected despite they mentioned some gifts earlier. Absolutely surprised and stunned by the gorgeous deskmats and their versatility: from the elegant charcoal-gold Hokusai/Kanagawa-derivative to the crazy Takoland – and anything in between. :D (The KBDNEWS coupon should work for 5% off, but as I can see, some of these are from earlier group buys.)

Pic:

Pic:

Pic:

I got something interesting from Akko (EU) and MoeeTech too, details later! ;)

Vendors & Discounts

Feel free to use the KBDNEWS discount code at 150 keyboard shops! And do not hesitate to report any issues.

New shops and updates to the database of keyboard vendors this week:

  • Keysme (CN) added. 10% off of all the spaceship themed keyboards (use the KBDNEWS discount code).
  • Astro Keys (US) added. 10% off of deskmats and artisans (KBDNEWS).
  • timeToy keebs (US) added, $20 off (KBDNEWS).
  • Next Keyboard Club (PH) coupon updated: it's the standard KBDNEWS now.

Mykeyboard.eu – I've been asked to remove them from the database entirely. Well, the entry has been marked as sus for some time, and while I'm aware of some serious issues, I'm definitely not in a position to judge the entire situation. It seems like a death spiral but I was told orders of in-stock products are fulfilled, so I leave the entry unchanged this time. I may make the warning more noticeable though.

Keymap wizardry – New layout design series

I made a lot of tests this week, mostly text statistics, but no overall progress with articles.

May will be pretty busy for me, I may not start the keyboard layout optimization series until then since I will be on holiday.

That said, I was doing the groundwork by collecting letter frequencies of relatively big chunks of texts, e.g. obvious choices like the whole English Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, etc., but also kbd.news posts and code.

Such stats may come in handy for pretty much every single upcoming write-up in the series, be it practical optimization tutorial or something more general.

I made a lot of scripts to process texts, clean up raw output with lots of junk metadata, and count characters eventually. This seems pretty basic, but that's only true for "smaller" files. As one encounters strings with the size of multiple gigabites, some new issues may kick in. ;) E.g. string length or memory allocation limits, not to mention the required time to do the actual counting, replacing, etc. I found that some regexp commands started to silently fail on strings as small as 20-40MB…

So reading large files in chunks and adapt counting mechanism is a must.

FYI, processing the whole Wikipedia makes no sense at all, I'll cover this in one of the write-ups. A much-much smaller corpus of a few megabytes is probably perfect as we'll see. I just want to do this once and for all.

Developments

  • As already mentioned, lots of scripts written as part of the layout design series, and pretty much that's it.

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That's all for today. Thanks for checking by. As always: Keep learning and building!

Until next time,
Tamás


Projects

PNCATEHO

The PNCATEHO by aroum is a 10-key chording keyboard for Russian.

Aroum's PNCATEHO (РИСАТЕНО) was created as a rethinking of ARTSEY for the Russian language, thus the Cyrillic letters stand for RISATENO.

The name is made up of the letters on the main layer which were selected according to the Russian letter frequency.

Specs

  • 10 keys, ortho
  • Choc V1 switches, Choc spacing
  • Direct pins
  • reversible PCB
  • Wireless (optional)
  • Per switch RGB (optional)
  • Power switch for wireless controllers (optional)
  • Two halves placed on one 100x100mm PCB (optional)

If you'd like to dig deeper, similar one-handed projects featured earlier are: Artsy Fartsy, Octopus Trio, but also the Mist and the two-handed UT22.

Resources


Masonry keyboard

The Masonry by dj_edit is another ergoish columnar keyboard projected on a rectangular keyboard shape.

Inspired by Bruce the Keyboard, just like Tschibo's Chaotist, dj_edit's Masonry is a 12 column version with a less aggressive stagger and more bottom row options.

I love Bruce the Keyboard. Masonry is my 12 column version of Bruce with a less aggressive stagger – dj_edit.

The case is stacked acrylic, keycaps in the photos are blank PBT XDA from AliExpress:

Pic:

Schematic for the MCU integration was taken from Sleepdealer's OSFRL project.

Specs

  • 36-44 keys
  • MX, hotswap
  • multiple bottom row options
  • on-board controller (STM32F072)

Pic: Masonry & Fortisan tray

Masonry & Fortisan tray

The matching artisan tray in the background is the author's Fortisan, a 40% sized artisan tray.

Resources


Kai Simple

Kai H. Chang's next design is the low-profile wireless Kai Simple split.

After the Ascend, Kai H. Chang shared his Kai Simple, an all-Choc low-profile wireless split.

I've been using my last Ascend KB for a month. While it is comfortable, MX switches are still relatively big and wide. Maybe it's bc I have small hands or was used to Sweep before it, I started missing Chocs, so that's why there's this Simple – Kai.

After the combined approach of the Ascend (MX switches for the main area and Chocs for the thumb keys), the author went with an all-Choc design this time.

Pic:

Saving desk space was still one of the design goals, but while aiming for ZMK/wireless, Kai left a pin for TRRS connectors.

Specs

  • 34 keys
  • Choc switches, soldered
  • Pro Micro footprint
  • ZMK

The design of the Ascend was inspired by the Wubbo.

Again, the keycaps are KLP Lamé by braindefender.

Resources


Wysteria

Wysteria is jwe's split keyboard with lots of features.

Fellow redditor _jwe_ shared Wysteria, a 36-key split keyboard with encoder, display, per-key RGB – generated via Ergogen.

Introducing Wysteria, my new 36-key keyboard. One for home-office, and one for work. I'd spent a long time looking, and couldn't find an existing PCB that had exactly what I wanted, so generated my own in Ergogen. In particular, heavy pinky stagger and a lateral pinky, instead of a top-row pinky, and encoders – jwe.

The keyboard has working firmware for both QMK and ZMK (with nice!view support and batteries under the MCU).

Specs

  • 36 keys
  • MX switches, hotswap
  • Pro Micro footprint
  • reversible PCB
  • per-key RGB
  • nice!nano/wireless/battery support
  • QMK/ZMK

Pic:

Notes: v0.3 has the thumb cluster diode traces incorrectly. The ergogen files have been corrected, you may start with those.

Resources


Tools

Key-sweep

A keycap generator by Sam Hughes: key-sweep creates multi-axis contoured keycaps.

Key-sweep, this WIP project by Sam Hughes aka roosterHughes, is a keycap generator based on OpenSCAD. Multi-axis contoured keycaps generated with it create a keywell experience on a flat board.

A multi-axis, concave typing experience on your good ol' planar keyboard! I'm using keycaps generated with this tool on both my personal and work keyboards, so it's actually pretty dang decent! – Sam.

The OpenSCAD files in the github repository are designed around minimal-input, multi-axis typing surfaces. The library is intended to make concave "keywell" keyboard experiences more accessible. This is accomplished by implementing the various elements of a keycap as discrete primitives which can be composed as individual "novelty" keys, universal-profile (flat) keysets, single-axis contoured keysets, or multi-axis contoured keysets.

Pic:

Warning:

The build is super inefficient and takes like 20 mins to compile. It's super flexible already, but I'm still having fun with it, so it's very likely to continue improving for the near future – Sam.

Resources


Review

TapXR review

The TapXR is a wrist-worn device: keyboard, mouse & controller in one. It's a fun gadget but works best within its closed ecosystem.

In contrast to the finger-worn Tap Strap, the first product by Tap Systems, the latest TapXR is a wrist-worn device: keyboard, mouse & controller in one. I've been testing it for two weeks, here are my thoughts about the most unlikely keyboard I've ever witnessed, a camera tracking your fingers.

TLDR; You'll love or hate your TapXR. Is it cool? Definitely. Portable? Sort of. Reliable? Not really. Ergonomic? No. Pricey? It depends. All in all, the TapXR won't replace your keyboard but is a nice gadget and handy controller for some specific and limited use cases. That said, I'd recommend it only to early adopters who like to experiment while don't mind if they end up with a $250-300 gadget confined to a drawer.

So based on online ratings and feedback, many users seem to have a love-hate relationship with the TapXR and for good reason. Amazon ratings are wild, practically distributed between 5 and 1 stars. I can definitely understand both groups, but I can give you some tips on how to get over the initial frustration.

While there's a short manual in the box, I'd suggest to head to the more comprehensive online manual. Updating the firmware was my breakthrough moment, it results in a way more reliable input device, but the process has its own risks (more on this later). Plus download the TapManager app, play around with the tutorials, and try out some other apps of this small software ecosystem too.

Disclaimer

I received this review unit from the manufacturer. As always, this may introduce all kind of bias. Read everything with a grain of salt.

Unboxing

The packaging is super professional. The box opens magnetically, quality materials everywhere with a nice touch.

Pic:

In the box: the sensor part of the device, two wrist bands (small and large), a credit card sized plastic cheat sheet with the default alphabet, charger station with cable, and manual – a shortened version as already mentioned.

Pic:

Tap bands

The large wristband was perfect fit for me. The only problem is: I'm a skinny guy with relatively thin wrists compared to e.g. my co-workers who looked really funny when trying to squeeze their chunky limbs into the pure bracelet. Although the band is very flexible, I doubt it's comfy for many adult males, especially on the long run.

Learning the chords

Most of the default chords make sense, particularly if your only or main language is English. Learning it took half an hour at most, even before I discovered the tutorials in TapManager, and TapGenius, a dedicated learning and practice tool.

Pic:

One-finger gestures (aeiou) are easy, if you are familiar with letter frequencies than you can guess a lot of consonants too (more frequent ones can be summoned by easier two-finger taps). There are a lot of visual cues (to symmetric alphas like IVMWY belong symmetric patterns), and you can come up with mnemonics too. When in doubt, especially with less frequent alphas, I memorized bigrams of mirrored gestures (NS, RH, KB, FX, CJ), so if you know one of these, you know the other one too.

While symbols are a bit harder to memorize, many of them make sense as well. Again, more frequent symbols are associated with easier taps.

TapManager and firmware update

While the TapXR can be used right out of the box, updating the firmware is recommended. The best way to do this is via TapManager, an app running on your phone, which offers some settings too: turn on/off haptic feedback, autocorrect, set doubletap timing, etc.

The firmware update process would take about 2-5 minutes normally – if it wouldn't fail at halfway, the device buzzing like crazy and the app prompting an error message… After four attempts without success, the device ran out of battery (needs to be over 50% to start the update). Better luck next time. […] I tried the update on the weekend so couldn't reach out for support, but after lots of unpairing and on/off cycles I finally succeeded. However, it required epic level of perseverance as it took me about 15-20(!) update attempts.

Nevertheless, the result is a whole new device. I'm not kidding: your whimsical source of frustration turns into a quite usable TapXR in an instant.

Customizing the layout

As already mentioned, the default keymap makes a lot of sense, assigning easier finger combos/chords to more frequently used letters of the English alphabet. However, there's a chance you won't use the TapXR for plain typing, or English only. That's when MapCreator may come in handy: a pretty versatile online app to make changes to the "keymap" or build it from scratch.

And this is important, because the TapXR excels as a controller, and you may end up setting up gestures to fire hotkeys accordingly. At least that's my gut feeling after all the testing.

Typing style & speed

The TapXR is definitely not for prolonged typing and coding, not to mention editing texts. One reason for that is the limitations of one-handed chords, the other the way you have to tap:

Fingers raised relatively high so the sensor can recognize the gesture as reliably as possible. You have to hover your wrist/forearm since there's a camera attached to it.

Pic:

Two taps per second is fine, however, at three taps per second double- and triple-tap functions may start to activate, so basically it is not possible to type the same letter any faster even if you could technically (in theory, specs claim a 10 gesture/sec speed).

Translating this to familiar metrics: there's a hard cap on the effective speed somewhere between 36 and 48 WPM, at least for words with double letters.

You can adjust doubletap sensitivity, but then triggering symbols will be harder.

(For the record, on the TapWithUs sub there's a 84WPM run mentioned, it would be good to have a clear understanding of the conditions of the experiment. It's definitely not typical.)

Haptic feedback

The haptic feedback is great to indicate if you activate your shift or 'switch' layer (numbers, arrows and some other functions), or enter/exit the experimental air mouse mode.

I mean, a small buzz is great if you activate a layer intentiously. However, when triggering something accidentally, which may often happen, they don't really help as the buzz is the same in pretty much all these cases.

Portability

Well, I give four stars for portability. Which may sound plain stupid in case of a wrist band, probably the most easy to carry around device one can imagine. However, given it only works reliably(?) on a flat and possibly hard surface, that means a desk most of the time, its usage is pretty restricted.

Pic:

The firmware update fixed some of these issues, but not entirely.

The promise of working on any surface is still an exaggeration.

Keyboard vs TapXR

No, the TapXR definitely can't replace a keyboard for typing, coding, gaming.

(Two-handed) chording in general is very powerful, but e.g. with stenography you produce one word per tap. The one-handed TapXR fires one character per tap.

The best use case for the TapXR is when it acts as a one-handed controller, e.g. for illustrators, when making music or controlling any major software with many hotkeys. Mouse or stylus in one hand, and all the hotkeys on the other via TapXR.

Ergonomics

Because it would block the sensor, you can't really rest your hands as usual. This is completely against my typing style as I rest my lower arms on the arm rests of my chair, or my palm on the palm rests of split keyboards. The TapXR won't work with this setup.

The only recommended way to rest your arm is on the edge of the table which may or may not work for you, it looks painful to me.

Another problem is the constant wrist extension and strain.

You tap by slightly raising your hand. On each tap. I can't even imagine calling this ergonomic. It's a lot of work compared to a properly set up keyboard. Strain is guaranteed in a few minutes.

Finally, your fingers don't move completely independently. If you were not aware of this earlier, trying to type "j"with the TapXR will teach you this.

Reliability

You should have a clear line of sight between the sensor and your fingertips, since the sensor is a camera.

The original firmware had a lot of issues with this, in my experience you couldn't really have objects beneath and around your hand either. Placing my tapping hand between a keyboard and mouse, with some cables in the background, the device was practically unusable. Lot's of disconnections too.

Again, update your firmware. It's much better now, however, far from perfect still.

Another issue worth pointing out is that the sensor is not infra, so you need some ambient light. For this reason, using the TapXR as a controller for TV may work at daylight but not in a dark room.

Finally, and this is the most frustrating, you can't really predict if it will work on a given surface or not. Sometimes it works on my lap, sometimes not. Sometimes it works perfectly on a desk, sometimes not. Sometimes it works acceptable in an almost completely dark environment, and turning off a lamp makes things worse. It's completely unpredictable.

AirMouse

This is still in beta mode, no settings either, but it has a great potential. With ergo boards the bottleneck is often the swap between the keyboard and mouse. With the TapXR, activating mouse mode is as easy as positioning your hand vertically.

Lot's of things to do yet, but this feature is very promising.

Overall experience

As soon as you could get the hang of it, you run into a new issue.

Discovering custom keymaps? How awesome! But the interface hangs after a few clicks. You've learnt the chords and want to work on your speed? Mis-taps drive you crazy and the device gets completely unresponsive as an ultimate test of my mental stability. Let's resolve the issue by updating the firmware! Sure. Here are some new error messages for you which will keep you busy for the rest of the day. :D

(I'm aware of the many positive reviews and genuinely don't get them. Mis-taps are a serious issue.)

So while it has a lot of potential, the unreliable behavior and gesture recognition of the TapXR renders the device a cool gadget rather than a reliable companion for work.

Pros

  • portability
  • build quality
  • documentation, customization

Cons

  • tapping is unreliable, unergonomic and inefficient
  • it can't replace a keyboard for most use cases
  • price

Conclusion

I had no problem with learning all the chords, I would love to create my own "keymap" and discover all the possibilities to unleash the full potential of the TapXR, but this needs preternatural level of dedication. I can't see how it could replace a keyboard in most use cases, but the TapXR is a cool gadget anyway. Mostly for early adopters who are ready to experiment and don't mind some frustration on the way.

Availability

  • TapXR at tapwithus.com, now for $299 $249

Quick news

Warning! Highly addictive! Glyphica is a typing survival game by fellow community member Sharde aka xm-zhou/aliasBlack. Type to shoot, level up, survive & hoard coins to buy upgrades. Lots of upgrades. Typing does pretty everything, there is no secondary control mechanic (movement, mouse-aim, etc). The difficulty level of the free demo released last Friday is pretty easy, touch typers will grind on for an hour and get to about level 50-60 where the game crashes when running out of power-ups. :D To be fixed later I guess, but playing Glyphica is lots of fun anyway.


A handwired "split Preonic" made by vanlyndgen using two 6*5 switch testers.


SandwichRising/dyst0pi4 published a new Keeb68 build log.


Closed source: Sweetkb by venisterkr with Gateron low-pro switches and NuPhy caps.


Qazimodo aluminum prototype.


La Somme (IC) is a Chiffre-like monoblock – in cerakoted aluminum or frosted acrylic, and with an interesting back profile (renders).


I don't usually feature group buys, but URSA is something different. Custom keycaps for Topre keyboards, brought to you by 23_Andreas and FKcaps.


That was Issue #162. Thanks for stopping by.

This issue was made possible by the donations of:
splitkb.com, MoErgo Glove80, Ashkeebs, ZSA Technology Labs, Aiksplace, @keebio, Upgrade Keyboards, Cyboard, Sean Grady, Jason Hazel, Jacob Mikesell, @kaleid1990, kiyejoco, Mechboards, KEEBD, littlemer-the-second, ghsear.ch, u/motfalcon, TurtleKeebs, Bob Cotton, FFKeebs, Joel Simpson, Richard Sutherland, @therick0996, Christian Mladenov, Lev Popov, Daniel Nikolov, Schnoor Typography, u/eighty58five, Caleb Rand, Skyler Thuss, Yuan Liu, James McCleese, Benjamin Bell, Ben M, zzeneg, Micah A., TALPKEYBOARD, Anatolii Smolianinov, Spencer Dabell, Matthias Goffette, Penk Chen, Hating TheFruit, Felicitas R., Vitali Haravy, Clacky, Davidjohn Gerena, anonymous, Stefan S., Alex Miller, Brendan P., Shnobble, Trey Causey, Jens Woyke, Dylan Ingham, keeb.it., Cloyce, Gordon Diggs, Mario S., koolkeys, s_p_l_o_d_e.

Your support is crucial to help this project to survive.

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