accidental enthusiasm

So I’ve told this story many times. This story is about keyboards.
I am a keyboard enthusiast. I didn’t really set out to become one, it just sort of happened while I was trying to solve other problems.
It turns out enthusiast-type keyboards are a really good solution to ergonomic problems.
This is how I became an enthusiast.

It started with a girl, as most stories do. At least most of my stories.
My endless pursuit of the attentions of the female person is a much much longer story, so I’ll not delve deeply into it for now.
A girl broke up with me.
Into the cavernous gaping hole in my schedule I decided to insert a MMORPG. Word of Warcraft, as I knew a guy who spoke well of playing.
Since I was going to be celibate anyway, at least for the near future, I might as well turn into the skid.
So I called up my buddy who played, and got a referral code for the discount, and started playing WoW.

At this point the game has infiltrated the zeitgeist enough that I don’t have to explain what a massive time-sink it is.
I played for hours upon hours at a time. 8 to 12 hours sessions were not uncommon. A normal chair was insufficient for this. I’d notice back pain or shoulder strain, no matter how many pillows I stuffed in and around my computer chair.

I thought, what other place can I spend 8 hours at a stretch? My bed. sleeping. I do that for 8 hours or so.
So I made an overhanging mount for my computer monitor that would allow me to suspend it over my futon or later my dorm bunk and play from a fully laying-down position. But from this position I could not see my keyboard to position my hands properly. Most keyboards have small raised bumps on the F and J keys to position hands on the home row without looking, but in the fast-paced gameplay, I could not count on this. I put larger raised bumps in key locations to help me find certain keys without looking. This and heavy use of the delete key when chatting is how I learned to touch-type without intentionally focusing on learning it.
Most IT professionals can touch-type, it is just the rote behavior of looking at the keyboard that has to be trained away.

I find it humorous to note that during this time while I played WoW from my bed, the South park episode making fun of World of Warcraft aired. My roommate put it on and I watched it by turning my head, while laying on my bed playing the game.

Some time later, my parents asked me to take an old piece of furniture to the junkyard. A LAZYBOY recliner which no longer swivelled properly. The rock and recline mechanism still functioned properly, however, and at the time, I was in a 2-person dorm room by myself, so I had room to bring it in. This was an upgrade from the bed on which I played WoW, but my keyboard didn’t fit well on my lap. The space between the arm-rests was not wide enough to sit the keyboard flat on my thighs, and the keyboard was too wide to balance on just the one armrest. I searched for a new solution.

My first find was the halfkeyboard from matias. Since only my left hand used the keyboard during gaming, I only needed half of a keyboard. And the hold-space function seemed like a clever approach to do the other side of the keyboard, but the price of it was a deterrent. As their primary market was for the disabled, insurance tends to pay for enabling equipment and as a result the prices were just ridiculous. $300 was more than a poor college student could afford.

My second find was the comfort ergomagic keyboard, which came in 3 pieces, connected by ‘stardard’ 6-pin phone cable, which I could make a longer version of to route around the back-side of my chair. It also supported remapping and macro functionality, which I didn’t immediately think of a use for, but turned out to be quite useful.

Using some scrap wood, I attached the comfort ergomagic to my LAZYBOY chair, and positioned my monitor where it could be seen from a reclined position. I also experimented with a 6DOF 3d motion controller as a mouse and WASD movement controller, freeing up valuable keys on my left-hand board. With the split design, I could no longer slide my hand right to get additional action keys which would normally be right hand when typing properly. I could delve into that at length in another post.

I would also note that the ergomagic did something better than other split-design keyboards I’ve seen, particularly the offering from kinesis. The number 6 is supposed to be typed with the right hand, if one were typing correctly. I know that FPS games using WASD would place a priority on the left hand having more keys, but that is not the primary function of a split keyboard. 6 on the left side just enables bad practice, and in fact prevents doing it properly, since it no longer appears on the right side. But I digress.

At some point while this was my primary computing station, I discontinued playing World of Warcraft. RAM going bad in my machine meant for 3 months I was unable to play, so I found other ways to occupy my time, and once my machine was working fully again, I had lost interest in the game.

Upon moving out of the dorms I disposed of my LAZYBOY, since my 8-12 hrs/day use of it had weakened the welds on the subframe to the point that it was further falling apart. It hadn’t been in tip-top shape when I got it, and cost me nothing, so I was not disappointed to see it go. The apartment I moved into had no room for it anyway. I moved back to the normal(ish) keyboard that I had before the ergomagic, until my next apartment, when I made a bold attempt to use a bean bag chair as my computer seat. My extra-large bean bag was really quite comfortable, but the ingress procedure involved a somersault into it so as not to dislogde the arrangement of the beans. And the ergomagic was in use again, on pillars attached to a plywood sheet on which the bean bag sat. It was a short-lived experiment.

I installed the ergomagic into my chair at work. I unscrewed the armrest pads from the mounting and measured their mounting holes, then build mounts from plywood that would bold on in between the brackets and the foam pads, then my keyboard sections mounted onto the plywood. At that job I also met someone who introduced me to the idea of a different keyboard layout: Dvorak.

This individual was the cleverest programmer I have ever met, and had a bit of a rapport with our VP of development, who typed very fast also, but in qwerty. At one point they had a typing race, and the VP one by a very narrow margin. Listening to the programmer extoll the virtues of dvorak, I wanted to give it a try. He naturally used windows key layout remapping in the OS, the easiest way to do it, but using a keyboard sharing program at home which operated below the OS layer, I could not do this. It would send qwerty keys to the other machines, and the mismatch was quite confusing. I set up my ergomagic to be dvorak. Not an easy switch, as I had to manually remap each changed key(not A or M) to the dvorak one, and the OS had no idea I was not typing in a non-standard layout. It was nice, but took me quite a while to get up to speed. And then, trying to play darksiders 2, the interface to remap controls was very cumbersome and hard to use. I had to remap the base commands because my keyboard didn’t do WASD. I had ,aoe instead. And every other key had to similarly be changed from the qwerty position to the dvorak one. On the fourth of fifth attempt with the game forgetting all my previous work, I gave up and wiped the ROM of my keyboard, returning it to default qwerty settings.

At some point I acquired a pair of older Apple Extended Keyboards. One might recognize them by their codenames, Nimitz and Saratoga, both aircraft carriers. An apt codename, as these things were humongous. But they operated on ADB. An obsolete connection, which no computer I used could work with. But some clever individuals on the internet had a solution. A $15 microcontroller, 3 wires, and about 20 min worth of programming got my ADB keyboards to operate on USB. The converter chip could also do layers, and so I set mine up to have one for qwerty and one for dvorak, using the now-defunct Power button to switch between them. I also took a card from matias’s half keyboard and made spacebar switch handedness. Meaning the left hand could do the right hand’s keys if I held space and pressed the mirror position, and vise versa. Releasing space without pressing another key typed a space character as usual. This came in handy because the standard shortcuts, zxcv, were all in different positions in dvorak, 3 of them on the right hand. I have since installed another trick from apple’s software implementation of dvorak. They way they did it was a kind of hybrid layout. If you held the Command key(all apple shortcuts use this key) then it would treat every key as if it was in the qwerty layout. So you could copy cut and paste as normal, since those shortcuts all worked with the Command key. I have a separate modifier key now that does this, on yet another layer for shortcuts this way. It is even more convenient than doing CTRL-Space-(right hand modifier with left hand). Long to describe but fairly easy to do. But I’m geting ahead of myself.

Using my modernized Apple Extended keyboards, one at work and one at home, I set out to convert my brain to Dvorak again. I made dilligent use of typing tutors catered to dvorak, and could easily switch back to qwerty if someone needed to use my station or if my workload got too heavy for my dvorak speed to keep up. Also it helped to have the layout printed on a sheet and hung on my cubicle wall behind my monitor. I’d gotten used to not looking down at my keys to see which was which, but having a referenc for their position(when learning) was very useful.

This time the dvorak conversion stuck. I can type qwerty when i need to, but for the most part I don’t. I know the studies done on the layout fail scientific standards, but anecdotally, I find it to be more comfortable. I’ve written a quarter-million words worth of novellas at this point, and I prefer this layout.

Some time later, I happened upon a new product being offered by massdrop. A two-part keyboard with a thumb cluster, not just a simple spacebar, or split pair of spacebars. The ergodox infinity, solder-it-yourself kit, all parts included. The price point was probably too high, but I ordered one for me and for my wife(for her birthday). Sadly this was not done like most drops, and in fact acted more like a Kickstarter. They took 13 months to deliver the kits, so my wife got hers on her NEXT birthday. She ended up not liking the keyboard, despit setting it up for her as simply as possible. The altered positions gave her too much difficulty so I ended up with two of these split keyboard pairs.

I, on the other hand, took to the ergodox like a fish to water. The keys are column-aligned not row-aligned like every consumer-grade keyboard, taking away another source of strain on my hands. I no longer had to bring my arms together, rotate my wrist, and tilt my hand sideways to type. I experimented with several different angles at which to hold up the ergodox boards, and settled on 75 degrees from horizontal. THis enables me to slide in between them and sit down, as they’re mounted to the arms of my current gaming chair. At work they are spaced far apart that I could set my laptop in between them to save space on my desk.
I have layers for function keys(there are actually 24 in ASCII) qwerty, dvoark, extende ascii symbols, the command-shifted layer, and even a stenography mode. That took a bit of work, and I had some help from a very clever guy. I was interested in steno because no amount of practice at one-letter-at-a-time is going to beat chords in a speed test. But the time cost to get proficient in steno is about 2 years at an hour/day of practice. And the tutor program I was using is not able to teach 2-chord words, so I kind of got stuck. Also in 2 years voice interpretation is going to be as good at making text as I’d be at steno, so I decided its better to spend the time on something else.

And that is the story of my keyboards. A series of events trying to solve wild and varied problems around ergonomics led to the result of me being a keyboard enthusiast. I have a sample set of the different kinds of keyboard switches, I can set up different animation patterns for the backlights, and I can implement a new layout for my keyboard, though at present I can’t think of another one I might need.

I have an idea to build a non-flat keyboard, as that is probably the next step in this evolution. Most designs can be 3d-printed, but the parts cost and time required to wire individual switches into a matrix are prohibiting factors at the moment. Also I wouldn’t be able to sit back in between them in my home computer sim rig thing. And I’d need to build 2 to have the same at work and home.