Posted On 08/26/2015 By In News

INTERVIEW Part 2 of 3: Jacob Alexander (Haata) talks Deskthority awards, Infinity keyboards, and working with Massdrop

Andy:  Hey Jacob, thanks for taking the time to talk to me again

Jacob:  Not a problem at all.

Andy:  So in the last interview we talked a lot about your 400+ keyboard collection consisting of heaps of rare vintage keyboards. I hear you have gotten awards for Keyboard Archaeology. Can you tell me a little more about those?

Jacob:  Haha, yeah, I’ve gotten a few of those from Deskthority. To give a bit of background, about a year after Deskthority was founded, webwit (one of the founders of Deskthority) solicited categories for a yearly community choice awards event. Since I was deep into collecting vintage keyboards by then, I suggested an archeology/best discovery award. I…narrowly won the inaugural year, by 1 vote.

Andy:  Very cool! What a close poll. I see you just beat out the Space Cadet keyboard. So do people just vote based on what they think are the best vintage finds of that year?

Jacob:  yeah, that’s basically how it works. Even though I won 2011-2014, every year I’m not quite sure if I’ll have something that can compete.

Andy:  And it has to be something you dug up on that given year?

Jacob:  So, the criteria is that it had to be unveiled in that year. I’m sure I have a mountain of keyboards that haven’t been cataloged yet (I considered those undiscovered)

Andy:  Ah I see, that makes more sense

Jacob:  It is getting harder though. I’m noticing less interesting keyboards from my usual channels. Always makes me wonder if I’ve “found everything.” But, something always comes up it seems. As for the rewards for winning the Archaeology award, other than community recognition, since 2012, webwit commissioned Wing Nut keycaps from the Clack Factory (back when they were the only custom keycaps).

Andy:  I saw that was one of the prizes. Do you still have yours?

yeah, I still have all 3. Webwit asked that they be given back to deskthority if I no longer wanted them

Andy:  That is awesome! Probably quite priceless for a keycap

Jacob:  haha, most likely

Andy:  Well speaking of notable keyboards, what do you think are some notable keyboards that have appeared in recent times?

Jacob:  Hmm, off the top of my head: Kishsaver (and family), Burroughs BETKB, Univac F-1355-00 (Magnetic Separation), Alps CB14182B (Super Alps), Smith-Corona Ultrasonic I Plus, Teletype 40K 104 DAB and Siemens Tastatur 280 S. also, I’d include the Univac Uniscope 100 keyboard as well. Not because it’s a particular good keyboard, or that it was one of the first rubber dome keyboards, or won a lot of design awards at the time, but because the original designer found deskthority and posted about the keyboard!

If I hadn’t found the keyboard, this would have never happened

Andy:  Whoa, that is awesome! Really interesting to read that history on it! Its great to see how even then people were thinking about how to make a “strong visual statement” with keyboards as well. So speaking of the Kishaver, a keyboard that is probably the most known of the ones you listed, what is so iconic and unique about those?

Jacob:  The short version, is that it’s a 60% capacitive sense buckling spring keyboard (full NKRO) with a cast metal case (aluminium?). The “official” IBM name is a 4704. The reason it’s called the “Kishsaver” is because an early GeekHack member known as kishy discovered the keyboard (after a lot of hard work, coming through IBM part lists)

Image Source: Kishy 

Around the same time, kishy managed to get his hands on the 50 key, 62 key (Kishsaver) and the 107 key keyboards in the family (all of them have ridiculously heavy cast metal cases) However, even though it was known about through part numbers, it wasn’t till last year that Parak (member of Input Club) finally got his hands on a 77 key (also New in Box, he also assembled the first complete set in the keyboard community)

Andy:  Indeed, I actually found a 62 key variant when I was a truck driver and was picking up truck loads of electronics from companies all over the place. I was sure there would be more in the box and that I had hit the jack pot, but alas there was just one. Still a solid find though. I had no idea that is where the name “Kishaver” came from though

Jacob:  While I got one of the very early Kishsavers, most of them came from tintin who found a large supply of them in China

Andy:  Oh no kidding. How many? Mine came from a fabric manufacturing plant I believe.

Jacob:  I can’t recall, but I think at least 25-30 as well as 50 keys

Andy:  Was that at a time they were already highly sought after? Or were they still relatively inexpensive to obtain then?

Jacob:  well, before tintin found them, only a handful of people had them. maybe 5? or less

I’m sure if they were better known (and on the market) they would have had a ridiculous price though. There was one problem, they needed a replacement controller which didn’t exist at the time. That kept the price down significantly, even when tintin was selling them off

Andy:  Did you make a controller for yours? Also, I’m sure you’ve seen that Ellipse is trying to have some new F62’s made up 

Jacob:  I did, with dfj and Parak we made one of the first community cap sense controllers. Though we never made very many. xwhatsit’s controller is what’s generally used (a small tidbit, hasu, of TMK fame, discovered how to make a converter for the Kishsaver after disassembling the ROM, to turn on Press/Release mode) Unfortunately, the scan rate was slow, and you couldn’t remap some of the keys, so this was only used by a few people for a short period of time

Andy:  As far as some more recent keyboards, what do you think are some noteworthy offerings?

Jacob:  Hmm, of currently shipping keyboards, Matias Ergo Pro comes to mind. It’s an ergonomic keyboard I can actually recommend to non-keyboard enthusiasts

Photo Source: Mac World

Leyboardio’s Model 01 is definitely where the most interest recently has been though

Andy:  Why is that? I also feel like a lot of non-enthusiasts got the Model 01

Jacob:  Model 01 hasn’t shipped yet

Andy:  This is true, but they’ve been bought haha

Jacob:  I’ve been following Jesse for quite a while on his quest to build that keyboard. He tried to do things that no sane person building a keyboard would try. Those keycaps…

Photo Source: Tech Times

Andy:  Yeah they are very interestingly sculpted for sure

Jacob:  By far, they are the most expensive part of the keyboard. But without them, it’d just be another ErgoDox clone (with some extra features, I’m super excited to get my Model 01 )

Andy:  Indeed. I think the keycaps are one of the things that really set it apart from other keyboards (I am too, I jumped on that buy right away)

Jacob:  Apart from those, there are some other interesting keyboards that are on the horizon

Andy:  Which ones?

Jacob:  First, it started with the A4Tech optical switches in the Bloody keyboards 

Photo Source: Massdrop

This was the first cherry clone that actually impressed me. Even though it was just an MX Black clone, they designed their own switch with custom optical sensors and transmitters. It’s been decades since this has been done for a keyboard. The other two are Topre’s analog sense keyboard and Adomax Flaretech analog optical switches 

Photo Source: CPCR

Andy:  Ah yeah, the Flaretech switches seem to have quite a few promising benefits, especially for gamers

Jacob:  unfortunately, Adomax will only be doing OEM for the foreseeable future. So, there won’t be any fancy custom keyboards with them….

Andy:  Yeah, that is a shame. It is always nice to see innovation still happening though

Jacob:  Most definitely, it’s only taken 20+ years for keyboard innovation to start up again. But, it is happening

Andy:  Indeed. I often try to remind people on the forums that they shouldn’t hate on brands like Razer, Corsair, etc too much, because those companies are doing a great job of marketing mechanical keyboards to people that have no idea what a mechanical keyboard is, and getting them interested in the hobby. The more people that are interested, the more innovation that goes into it.

Jacob:  When I first got into keyboards, mechanical keyboards were in a death spiral pretty much everywhere (except Japan and South Korea.) Cherry was even discontinuing MX Reds

Andy:  And now Cherry can’t get switches out fast enough

Jacob:  yep

Andy:  And a lot of that is owed to the bigger companies selling those keyboards to the masses, especially gaming. Not my personal taste in keyboards, but I definitely support them in that sense. So as far as your own innovations and keyboards, you’ve already created the Infinity 60% keyboard, and the ErgoDox infinity. Can you tell me a little about how those came to be, and about your relationship with Massdrop?

Jacob:  Sure

Early last year, I was having some discussions with Massdrop after one of the meetups. Mechanical keyboards was a booming market for them, except they had one problem. Every manufacturing had supply limits. Even though Massdrop had customers, they couldn’t fulfill all the demand. The ErgoDox was a large success for them, so they wondered if they could apply that to other keyboards as well. Unfortunately, Massdrop has no product engineering team, so they needed to find someone to do this for them. At the time, I wasn’t really interested (generally quite busy working on the DPH capsense controller for the Kishsaver). Since 60% cases were easy to get, Massdrop asked Jesse from keyboardio if he could design them a custom keyboard. Unfortunately for Massdrop, this never really panned out. Jesse was trying to focus on the Model 01 and was still learning PCB design. Fast-forward to June last year. Massdrop asks me again if I’d be interested in building them a keyboard. I had taken a week off from work (work stress reasons) and it seemed like the perfect project to get my mind off of things. Instead of making them one keyboard, I decided to design a system that could make any keyboard. Now the reason why did the HHKB-like 60% layout.

Photo Source: Massdrop

We wanted to prove to the world that we could create any layout, and the HHKB and the Poker II were the most requested keyboards on Massdrop at the time. After a community poll, we settled on an “HHKB 3” layout. About 1300 people voted in the poll hereWe actually had an article written about us in Gizmodo too, which was very cool!

Andy:  Essentially the Infinity just has 3 extra keys than an HHKB on the bottom row

Jacob:  (while it was worth it in the end, we regretted this decision quite a few times during development)

Andy:  Why did you regret it at first?

Jacob:  6 unit spacebars are a world of hurt

Andy:  So sourcing keycaps, yeah

Jacob:  the first round of 6 unit stabilizers were made by hand by a Massdrop employee

Andy:  oh god, what a job

Jacob:  we actually commissioned a special bending tool to make all the stabilizers. The other part Signature Plastics had the oddest stabilizer arrangement for 6 unit spacebars which meant, no matter how hard we looked, we’d have to make our own

Andy:  ouch. Do you have any plans to update the infinity in the future?

Jacob:  We’ve already been doing minor revisions on each of the Infinity runs (the pending run has quite a few PCB fixes). But yes, we will likely do an update to the Infinity at some point. I’m sure at least backlighting will make it in.

Andy:  Very nice, I bet a lot of people would be thrilled about that. How has the overall experience of working with Massdrop been?

Jacob:  It’s had it’s ups and downs. Overall, I think it’s been positive though. Input Club as a company was started without any funding at all (most of our tools come out of our own pockets). Unfortunately, prototyping costs a lot. But this is where the relationship with Massdrop has been really awesome. Massdrop, up to this point, been willing to fund all prototype consumables

Andy:  Yeah thats huge

Jacob:  i.e. getting plates/cases made, ordering keycaps/switches, rush orders of PCBs, PCB assembly

all these costs really add up over time

Andy:  oh absolutely

Jacob:  But, there have been some hiccups. As I mentioned earlier, Massdrop engineering had promised us a (temporary) configurator for the Infinity 60% that, after being delayed (and broken) many many times was just canned. I…was not happy. It wasn’t until the 2nd drop shipped that the configurator was finally ready for basic layout configuration.

Andy:  ouch, so what was the alternative for people to use?

TMK?

Jacob:  Well, the firmware itself was still ok, but you would need to compile the code yourself and using the KLL language directly to define your layout (though the TMK would also work)

Andy:  Which is an intimidating task for some people, definitely doesn’t help sell keyboards

Jacob:  It was one of my requirements for the project from day 1 (June 2014) Personally, I hate GUIs, but I totally understand how they are less daunting.

Andy:  Indeed, especially when trying to sell the keyboard to a wider market. At least things turned out alright. The Infinity sales have done quite well on each of the drops

Jacob:  Most definitely. I was very surprised on how well the Infinity Ergodox went.

Photo Source: Massdrop

(factories are lined up, and manufacturing should be starting in a few days)

Andy:  yeah, dying to get my hands on one honestly haha

Jacob:  I just finished coding up the new interconnect protocol on Saturday. It’s working beautifully so far

Andy:  that is good news!

Jacob:  (I can definitely say all my work in reverse engineering old keyboards helped a lot!) LCD and backlighting control will be pretty basic, but I hope to add more sophisticated features to them over time. Maybe even some games, haha

Andy:  hahaha that would be awesome. Bring me back to the days of calculator games in high school

Jacob:  Ah yes, I spent many an hour not paying attention in math class programming BASIC on my TI 83+ Silver

Andy:  Yup me too. Connect up to the buddy beside of you and have showdowns in bomber man haha

Jacob:  Hated the keyboard though

Andy:  Oh yeah, it was rubbish. Mainly, the keys were made for people with midget hands. Well is there anything else you’d like to discuss in this segment? Next time we have a good deal to discuss concerning the Input Club and future projects with them

Jacob:  Nah, I think that’s good for tonightStill finishing up USB compatibility testing on the Infinity ErgoDox.

Andy:  Very good, Well thanks again for talking to me, I cant wait for the last part of this interview series! There is some really big stuff to talk about

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