A Passion for the Best is in Mechanical Keyboards

There is an entire subculture of people fascinated by computer keyboards. While the majority of the population is content with whatever keyboard came with their computer or is supplied by their employer — usually the bottom basement squishy membrane keyboards — there are a small group of keyboard enthusiasts diving into custom keycaps, switch mods, diode matrices, and full-blown ground-up creations.

Ariane Nazemi is one of these mechanical keyboard enthusiasts. At the 2017 Hackaday Superconference, he quite literally lugged out a Compaq with its beautiful brominated keycaps, and brought out the IBM Model M buckling spring keyboard.

Inspired by these beautiful tools of wordcraft, [Ariane] set out to build his own mechanical keyboard and came up with something amazing. It’s the Dark Matter keyboard, a custom, split, ergonomic, staggered-columnar, RGB backlit mechanical keyboard, and at the 2017 Hackaday Superconference, he told everyone how and why he made it.

A rubber dome keyboard. The only spring pressure comes from a sheet of rubber

Ninety-nine percent of the keyboards you’ll ever see are crappy rubber dome keyboards. This is a specific type of switch, made with two contacts on a PCB, a sheet of rubber with a bunch of little bubbles in it, and a conductive foam pad mounted to the bottom of a key. The keys get their springiness from these rubber domes, and when a key is pressed it smashes into the PCB contacts, closing a circuit.

It’s certainly an inexpensive way to build a keyboard, but compared to a true mechanical switch it feels like crap. The key doesn’t activate until it hits bottom, and the lifetime of each of these switches is measured in the tens of thousands of cycles instead of the millions of cycles a mechanical keyswitch can handle.

The Cherry MX Blue keyswitch

On the other end of the spectrum is a mechanical keyswitch, best represented by the Cherry MX switch; a make and model of switch, with clones also built by Gateron and Kailh. These switches use actual springs and bits of brass to close a switch and they provide tactile feedback to the typist. There are even different varieties of MX-style switch; the ones with red stems are almost linear in their feedback, while browns, clears, and blues have a little bit of resistance in the middle of the key’s travel. The blues are clicky and are somehow even louder than the buckling springs found in the IBM Model M. They sound like a machine gun, and it’s awesome.

An entire community has grown up around putting these MX-style switches into custom designed enclosures for the perfect typing experience. There are innovations in ergonomics like columnar spacing, where the Q, A, and Z keys are in a straight line. There are split keyboards, where the left and right side of the keyboard are attached by a cable. Ariane decided he wanted the ultimate keyboard. It would be a split keyboard, and it should have a columnar layout. Because he’s part of the Hackaday crowd, this keyboard must have a ton of blinkies. This led to the creation of the Dark Matter keyboard, one of the most technologically impressive keyboards we’ve seen in a long time.

Like a lot of mechanical keyboard projects, Ariane is using a Teensy as the controller for each half of his keyboard. Unlike most mechanical keyboard projects, Ariane is using the Teensy LC, the cost-reduced version of this family of dev boards. Until very recently, the most popular firmwares for keyboards haven’t been brought over to the Teensy LC. Ariane did just that, and added support for driving WS2812 RGB LEDs. Combine this with an MX-compatible keyswitch with a clear housing and some polycarbonate keycaps, and Ariane made the blinkiest keyboard you’ve ever seen that doesn’t have individual OLED displays embedded in each keycap.

Ariane’s talk is a wealth of information on how to manufacture keyboards, from firmware and software development to how to build an enclosure. Keyboards are a surprisingly popular side topic in our little niche here on Hackaday, and we’re pleased Ariane could give this talk and extol the virtues of mechanical keyboards.

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