The journey to Corvus: The Evolution of Custom Keyboard Builds

Meet Corvus: A Programmable Split Ergonomic Keyboard

This is the prototype Corvus that I designed, laser cut, wired, and programmed yesterday.

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Getting here was such a long journey, I feel like it needs something special to announce it…

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Sorry, was just introduced to this text generator and it is…

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Ok! I’m over it!

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Why does it look like that?

I’m glad I made you ask that!

As with most things, the journey is more interesting than the destination. Even if the destination is really neat.

So, when did this journey start? We have to go baaaackwaaayyy baaackk…

To when I just started mechanical keyboarding… which was… huh.. Almost exactly 1 year ago. 10/13…

Ok, so I guess it’s not that far back…

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“Just for fun on the laser cutter.” Built on a whim to test the waters and test my laser cutting abilities, this 40% keyboard became my favorite immediately.

Where are the rest of the keys?

They’re on different layers of the keyboard! Much like you hold SHIFT to make 4 into $, pressing the up or down arrows on the bottom changed what the keys did!

I was improving the case for the recently made Split56 Ghettodox at the library laser cutter I just got access to, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about with these Planck things.

I was brand new to the cutter, and cut really terrible switch holes, but I still managed to mount the switches somehow, and having fresh box of Dolch from a Massive Drop, I couldn’t help myself.

I put on the caps knowing I’d probably never be able to take them off again. I was mostly right. Removal of Alps caps from switches on non-locking plates and tight fitting layouts is very difficult.

But I had a Plancktechnically… Don’t tell Jack.

Why does it look so square?

This keyboard has no stagger to the keys, which makes them easier to reach, and more ergonomic!

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The staggering of the keys was due to the physical limitations of typewriters that needed mechanical room for arms to move up and strike the page.

I adapted to the straight up and down grid-style (sometimes called Matrix layout) very quickly, only stumbling on the infamous zxcv keys which is apparently quite common.

It didn’t have that cool MIT layout with the 2x spacebar in the middle, but it would have to do for testing!

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The theory of the Planck keyboard, and the goal of ergonomics. Minimal finger movement, lost keys moved to “layers” of the keyboard you access by holding or tapping a key.

I keep coming back to this picture Jack Humbert made (I think?) because it’s just so good.

It’s a great visual of where we should all strive to be ergonomically. But something always bothered me about it, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.

Originally, I skipped the MIT layout because it was easier to make a grid, but kept trying to get to it. But the more I tried to get there, the less sense it made to go there.

MIT layout is for aesthetics and feels.

The MIT layout provides a few things: a visual break in the middle with the double spacebar, the tactile feel of the longer key, and the audible feedback of the stabilizer *clack* from pressing it, so it’s a bit more satisfying to spaaaaaaaaace!

HOWEVER… The same AND MORE can be accomplished switching to grid, using different colored keys, using heavier/louder switches for those two, and inverting an R4 profile key…

Doing the above, you get one extra key (most people only space with one thumb), the same satisfying clack (clicky mod black Alps for me), the visual break, and the tactile “homing” but for your thumbs.

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The final form of the Flanck

Note the high profile F1 and F2 keys along side the reversed R4 low and sloped keys. These functioned almost like a deep dish homing keys. Your thumbs fell naturally into them, and against the slope of the high walled keys on the side.

This was extremely useful, and quick, but it wasn’t ergonomic…

Sadly, the Flanck gave its life to make the Plico. (;-;)7 Goodnight, sweet prince…

rsxbz49
Enter the Plico: The folding 40% keyboard

This folding 40 could tuck away in your bag or case and unfold to the angle you prefer ergonomically, without losing the diminutive size of the 40%. The hinge is simple, but my own design.

It took way too much effort to get this designed. I’m sure I missed some easier step along the way…

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It folds all the way back. Yet another whim I never though would pan out, which became the new standard.

I laughed out loud when I thought of adjusting the hinge so it could fold up all the way. I just thought it was too ridiculous to seriously consider. But now, that’s how it spends most of its time. Whenever I travel with it, it gets folded up fully, and rests on top of my bullet journal or tablet.

I used this exclusively for a while, and kept notes of what was difficult, what was slow, and what just didn’t work.

What I noticed was that I almost always wound up at 30 degrees, that it was hard to tap keys on the right side with my left hand (obviously, it’s further away now), and that I was having trouble hitting numlock (hold to make my top keys into the number row) dead on every time with my right thumb. Also, left shift needed a taller profile. Shift+Control was almost impossible without moving my hand.

F1 and F2 were right next to my thumb and easy to hit without thinking, but one key further was less sure.

This lead me to realize there was something ELSE wrong with that picture!

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When thumbs collide: There were two missed keys in perfect position!

This image shows all the fingers next to easy to reach spaces, but the thumbs were jammed against each other, and easy to reach spaces were ignored. The MIT layout also sees both thumbs pressing the same key, which is also a waste because people tend to use one thumb for their spacebarring needs while the other sits mostly idle.

Lazy left thumb. Lets change that.

When we split the halves further, we find high value real estate left fallow.

Obviously, this was for the purpose of size constraints. I understand the design decisions, but I wanted stronger and faster function first.

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Same hardware, new software? What if we just changed what the keys did and moved them out so our thumbs had more room to breathe?

Red keys are where your fingers and thumbs lay at rest, blue are the easiest to reach from that resting position.

This was the first idea; the Atreus gets away with only 5 columns, so why not simply move your hands out one column, and reclaim the center keys for your thumbs?

The loss of outer pinkie keys was minor. Technically this is the weakest motion on the keyboard and requires the most hand contortion and/or full hand movement. It is to be avoided.

People DO run Atreuses’s (Atreii?) as daily drivers, so I knew it could be done with less than a 4×12, but I just couldn’t quite get into it.

Maybe this layout will work for someone! If you try it out, let me know!

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The AT101 “LittleFoot” designed by me as a desktop replacement keyboard with better ergonomics and more keys for less layering. Noted as a tremendous failure.

Around this time, the Littlefoot made an entrance in the desktop role, and was a rather surprising…

 

FAILURE

Remember how pinkies are terrible? Using pinkies for mods like Shift and Control (and by Control I mean where your Caps Lock key used to be, because you don’t still have a caps lock key do you?) meant slapping it down in the general area of the edge of the keyboard on that row.

When I added another column to the left of those mods, (modeled here by the 8, 6, 2 numpad keys) even with the higher profile keys on the next column over, I was missing them, and slowing down considerably.

The extended spacebar and function key was meant to make homing in on them easier, but they just made me bend more to get to the keys next to them

The center strip was a cool idea, and maybe the people at typematrix can’t get enough of it, but I found it very distracting and hard to reach. Maybe they’ve all got longer pointers than I do. It was a pain.

Somehow even the basic Alphanumeric grid layout felt off. Technically it was no different from a 40%, just spread out one key width. No idea what was wrong here. It was just bad.

At least the enter key on the right was nice. Very satisfying to slam that pinky home.

So, I needed a new desktop piece, and I wanted to learn from my mistakes…

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Gotta start somewhere

This started as a 40% with number rows, and two thumb switches on the inside. Given my plico experience, and all that empty space in the middle, I angled them at 30 degrees.

Then I played “Wherema gonna fit this key?” and started fitting things in, spreading the build out slightly to fit.

When I was done, it looked like a boomerang, and I didn’t favor that, so I gambled on a vertical stagger of 1/4 key size. This is my first experience with such a significant vertical stagger. I had tested a much more slight one on the Infinity Ergodox, but never really gave it a fair run.

It made everything fit visually, and I figured I might as well test it out, as I already knew I was fine with zero vertical stagger and could just make a new one without it.

Rounding things out aesthetically lost the top left and right corner keys, which transplanted easily to the middle position. Those spots were hard to reach anyway, and that’s not what this build is about. The -_ key is usually the most used key when programming.

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The next evolution in Keyboardeningstonshire®©

This left me with some blank spaces to drop some squared keys in. I felt like the escape key should also be an indicator, so it will have a light.

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Most of the keys match the legends printed on them. But Scroll Lock is right out. That’s Escape. Get out of here Scroll Lock. No one likes you. Go hang out with Pause/Break and talk about the good old days.

I cut it yesterday, and finished it last night around 3am, and typed everything you’ve read here on it.

It is exceptional.

I’ve yet to untrain myself from using my 40% shortcuts, so I’m not really using the enter and back space keys (played here by F3 and F4), and naturally I use my HJLK arrows on layer one, but the rest is fitting in smoothly.

It’s notably larger than the Plico, but it’s as wide as a 60%, and only one key size taller.

The lower function and space keys are Gateron greens, shared with me by /u/geeker342 at the Nashville keyboard meetup, and are definitely adding to the somewhat lackluster performance of the browns everywhere else.

I also owe thanks to geeker for the splash of orange, which has somehow become my signature.

Note left shift (played here by Home) is 3 profiles off, this was intentional after my Plico experience, and is both easy to find and unobtrusive.

Sadly, the QFR gave its life to make the Corvus. (;-;)7 It was my first. No other mech can say that.

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These QFR keycaps were all I had that were cherry and not the tactile horror that is DSA; but at least they served to inspire the name!

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Look at that rough cut cardboard base protecting the hand wiring.

It looks like someone cut it with a dull pocket knife at 3am last night…

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BONUS CUTS: A 5×7 I also cut to play around with as I begin to miss the comfort of full split keyboards.

Nothing to the left of the mods, inside thumb keys, numpad homing bump on S for WASDing. Not wired yet, but soon. I’ll use a ribbon cable first to make sure I like it, then it will get a hardwired USB Type C

For more about keyboards and more about more things, go to TroyFletcher.net.

 

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The journey to Corvus: The Evolution of Custom Keyboard Builds

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