Computer keyboards have not changed much over the years. Standard keyboards of today come in either ANSI or ISO layouts, inspired by typewriters invented in the 1870s, where keys had to be staggered to leave space for the levers. This staggered layout is unnatural, however, for human hands, especially for the left hand where the slant of the keys goes against the natural movement of the fingers. While a few attempts have been made to design ortho-linear keyboards that align the keys in a straight line from front to back (such as Typematrix 2030, Kinesis Advantage, Truly Ergonomic 207/209 and Ergodox), the Nexus keyboard designed by Geekhack forumer AcidFire could be the best attempt so far in re-designing the keyboard.
In today’s digital world, many people use keyboards as their main tool for work and play. As with any tool, having a well-designed one makes a world of difference to how effectively and efficiently we can get our tasks done. While other tools have seen continuous innovation over the years to bring greater performance, convenience and ease of use—such as robotic vacuum cleaners and driverless cars—the design of keyboards has remained virtually unchanged for over 140 years, even when the physical constraints of typewriters have been removed.
Design Considerations for a Better Keyboard
How can a better keyboard be designed? Here are a few design considerations for the average user.
- The keys should be aligned in straight columns, to allow the fingers on both hands to curl and extend symmetrically and in straight lines. This will ensure equally comfortable movements for both hands, and reduce sideways movements that may lead to fatigue and discomfort over prolonged periods of use.
- Horizontally, the keys should be staggered (typewriter keys are vertically staggered) according to the different lengths of each finger, so that every key is within comfortable reach.
- The keyboard should be symmetric with the same number and layout of keys on each hand. Standard keyboards have more keys under the right hand than the left, requiring a longer stretch by the right pinkie to the =, ] and \ keys.
- Commonly used keys such as backspace and delete should be placed within easy reach.
- The numeric keypad should be optional for most users except those who work extensively with numbers, so that the mouse can be placed closer to the hands’ neutral position above the keyboard.
- The keyboard should use mechanical switches such as Cherry MX switches that give tactile feedback to the fingers, for hours of comfortable typing.
- The left and right halves of the keyboard should be separated with a small gap, and the keys should be slightly angled inwards, so that the user’s wrists are straight while typing.
- The keys should be customisable, as each user may have slightly different needs and preferences. This will allow users to customise the positions of the Ctrl and Esc keys, for example, or even use a different layout such as Dvorak, Colemak or Norman.
- Related to the previous point, the keycaps should have low-power electronic displays, such as E Ink, on their top surfaces, which change the key legends automatically when the keys are customised.
- The keyboard should be wireless, to reduce clutter and allow for versatile uses in the home or office.
- The keyboard should be comfortable to use on the lap. Yes, this goes against ergonomic principles, but it would be a welcome feature for those who want to control their smart TV, media player, or entertainment computer from the comfort of their couch.
In the quest to redesign the keyboard, Geekhack forumer AcidFire came up with what might be the best keyboard since typewriters, the Nexus:
This keyboard, with the optional Bluetooth module meets all the criteria above except no. 9, which will require innovations in keycap manufacturing. Even so, this looks to be a very promising keyboard. It seems very ergonomic, has customisable keys, and looks awesome for a prototype put together in the creator’s own home.
For those who prefer a straight layout, AcidFire has created a version too:
Finally, a split keyboard for those who prefer to customise their hand separation, tilt and tenting:
With so many options, there is a suitable model for everyone. The keyboard is not available yet, but development and testing is progressing at a rapid pace, with keen interest and participation from other Geekhack forumers. AcidFire is inviting up to 20 people to participate in a beta test of the different variants. Once the design has been finalised, he intends to raise funds on Kickstarter to produce the first batch.
This is a fantastic and refreshing redesign of the keyboard, and I cannot wait to get one of my own!