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Keyboard of the Future? Redux

November 13th, 2007

1107-Optimax In Use
Kind of looks like a 1960’s Star Trek console, doesn’t it?

A few years ago I posted on the Optimus Keyboard by Art Lebedev in Russia. After two years of being vaporware, they’re finally coming out with the thing… but it’s priced at $1564, more than five times what was initially rumored. And only a few hundred are being made in the next few months–understandable, as not too many people can drop a couple of G’s on a keyboard.

But the potential is huge. If the costs can be brought down (and the makers are talking about a sub-$500 configuration for the near future), then an OLED keyboard is potentially a “killer app” piece of hardware. Aside from the coolness of having a keyboard where every key is a mini-LCD monitor, aside from the ability to show game controls, application tools, or various language sets directly on the keytops, an OLED keyboard stands the best chance of any innovation yet developed to finally, once and for all, shed us of the shackles of the QWERTY keyboard.

If you already know why QWERTY is bad, then go ahead and skip on down to the video. Many people actually assume that QWERTY is laid out to accelerate typing, but in fact, the reverse is true. QWERTY was developed for old-style typewriters, which used key-shaped (hence the word “keyboard”) metal rods laid out in a fan shape below a strike zone with an embedded ink ribbon. Push a button on the keyboard, and a key strikes up and hits the target area with its engraved head, leaving an imprint on the paper rolled around the carriage beneath the strike zone; the carriage would then move a character’s width so that the next key to hit the strike zone would leave an imprint in the next blank space. The problem was, all keys were mechanically aimed at the same spot (the strike zone), so if you typed too quickly, the keys would collide with each other, sometimes sticking and piling up on each other in a “keyjam” that would at the very least delay you while you extricated the keys, and at the worst, left an indelible mess which screwed up your whole document. Thus, the QWERTY layout was developed to either slow people down or to place oft-used keys farther from each other inside the machine, thereby reducing keyjams.

1107-Mac-Intl-LayoutsThe keyjam problem was solved decades ago with type-ball and daisy-wheel typewriters which eliminated keys and so could not jam (and also introduced changeable fonts as early as 1961), and later more effectively with electronic word processing. And there is a keyboard layout which actually is designed to speed up typing: DVORAK. In fact, your computer could do DVORAK, right now; Apple has had it since 1980 or so, and Windows since the mid-90’s. A minor series of mouse clicks could switch you to DVORAK, no matter what your physical keyboard is. However, DVORAK goes largely unused; we have been stuck with the QWERTY layout because of a catch-22: people are trained to use QWERTY keyboards because that’s the keyboard everyone has, and we can’t change the layout because everyone is trained on QWERTY. So we have been stuck with a keyboard that works against us for a few generations now, robbing us of productivity. A few people (like my brother, for instance), have trained themselves on DVORAK anyway, not caring what’s printed on the keys.

But in order to really leave QWERTY behind, we need a flexible keyboard, one that can be both QWERTY and DVORAK, so two different pieces of equipment are not needed. The Optimus keyboard is an attractive answer, except for the fact that it’s prohibitively expensive. But when OLED drops enough in price, and OLED keyboards begin catching on, I would not be at all surprised if they became standard issue. How long that will take is the question.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of an Optimus in operation. The camera work in the video is annoying, but you can see what a changing OLED keyboard looks like.

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  1. November 13th, 2007 at 23:45 | #1

    I have been waiting for this keyboard to come out for years! But, it looks like I will have to wait a little longer….

    As a DVORAK evangelist myself, I am dying to get my hands on one!!

    It would also be nice if they would develop an ergonomic version, but one thing at a time….

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