Author Topic: Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard  (Read 1163 times)

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Offline lispnick

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Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard
« on: Thu, 10 June 2021, 17:16:19 »
Hi guys, my first post on GH! I would like to introduce my keyboard project here. I have announced it on DT earlier this year but I guess it would not hurt to write a few details here since GH seems to be a bit different community. Anyway, I will try to avoid content overlap.

What is it about?

I have decided to make a close replica of the classic Symbolics 365407 (Rev. A) keyboard. This is the keyboard that came with the late 36xx series of LISP machines built and sold by Symbolics, Inc. in the 80s. If that does not ring a bell, it is a younger sibling of the well-known super-rare extremely-expensive Space Cadet (the last one that appeared on eBay was sold for $9,569). I tried to give the keyboard the same external dimensions as the original, including the layout and the curvature of the keycap dishes to preserve its original ergonomy. This is a comparison of the original and the replica:



… and a mandatory typing demo (this one features the keyboard with different types of vintage as well as modern Alps-compatible switches I have used so far in custom builds):


Why this project?

I acquired one of the Symbolics keyboards about 5 years ago, made a USB conversion (I incorporated Hans Huebner's matrix scan algorithm into the TMK firmware), and started using it as my daily driver. I tuned my Emacs setup and the keyboard rapidly increased my productivity. The layout, however weird at first sight, is just ingenious. I love all the function and modifier keys and I am sure to never go back to an ordinary boring ANSI board. If Emacs is your editor of choice, I can highly recommend considering a Symbolics-style keyboard—the editor will suddenly make much more sense.
More
SPOILER: I do not want to contribute to the editor war here but I finally started to understand all the Emacs haters—they simply have not tried Emacs with a proper keyboard! Seriously, if you are a Scheme/Common LISP/Clojure hacker and enjoy Emacs with paredit, or use the org-mode extensively, a Symbolics-style keyboard is a must-have.

So, driven by my enthusiasm, I bootstrapped a small EU-based company and named the keyboard project ‘Keymacs’—probably not the most original name, but hey, the dot-com domain https://keymacs.com was available!

Comparison: Symbolics 365407 (Rev. A) vs. Keymacs A620N-88

There are a few differences between the original and our keyboard. As mentioned before, I tried to preserve the original dimensions and the overall erognomy, including the specific layout. Materials and internal organization are different and are subject to component availability, design decisions, and my own personal tastes. Here are some details:
  • The original case is two-part, the top is thick plastic, the bottom is a bent steel plate with large rubber stripes. Our case in two-part machined aluminium with sand blasted and annodized matte finish. It is held together with 10 M3 screwes and uses 3M bumpon feet. The case itself is pretty heavy (3 lbs and 10 oz / 1.644 kilos), it is designed to act as a clamp for the steel mount plate.
  • The original keyboard has an all-grey color scheme, our keyboard uses a black/grey color scheme that is inspired by the older Symbolics keyboard (PN 364000). I personally like this color scheme more than the original. Also, since the keycaps are double-shot polyurethane (details follow), from the manufacturing point of view, the black is much more forgiving.
  • The original legends are black on grey (or red on grey in case of the modifier keys). Our legends are white on black, the functional and modifier keys are blank grey. The font used on our keyboard looks more 70s. It has been designed from scratch with old terminal aesthetics in mind.
  • The switches on the original (Rev. A) are Hi-Tek 725 (a.k.a. space invders), linear and rather heavy. Our keyboard is designed as Alps-compatible. This was actually one of the major decisions and it was not an easy one. I personally like lighter switches that allow me to type faster, Alps SKCM Oranges being my favorite, this was one of the factors that determined my final decision on switches.
    More
    At the beginning of my keyboard adventure I had zero knowledge of switches and ‘mechanical keyboards’ in general, so I acquired a few of the vintage classic boards just to get an inspiration and to get some insight. After experiencing the beamsprings, buckling springs, and Micro Switch Hall effect switches, I have come to a conclusion that I do not want to make another board based on Cherry MX (or MX-Compatible) switches. Actually, the quality of switches on the market was a source of a great frustration and at some point I seriously considered to reproduce some of the vintage switches (I am glad I dismissed that idea, at least for the moment, maybe I reconsider that in the future).
  • The original keycaps are thin ABS double shots. Our keycaps are hand-cast polyurethane double shots. That's right—the alphanumerical keys consist of white individually made polyurethane inserts that are overmolded in black. I do not know if that counts as ‘artisan keycaps’ (I have no tanks, skulls, or traslucent alien keycaps) but the production of a single set of keycaps takes about a week and involves a tedious hand work where a lot of things can go wrong (so, at least the term hand-made is appropriate here). This I hope explains the price tag of the keyboard.
  • The original had a non-detachable proprietary cable, our keyboard comes with a rugged Amphenol USB connector. The main PCB of our board has an open design (a simple 10x10 physical matrix) and supports PJRC Teensy controllers.
To give you more idea of the internal organization, here is a photo of a hollow SLS-printed section of the keyboard with an ortholinear mount plate and a dummy stainless PCB:



As you can see, the mount plate is placed lower in the case than it is usual. This has been one of the design decisions that I believe contributed to the (in my opinion) great sound of the board. As a result, the board cannot be made MX compatible because the pins of MX-Compatible switches will not fit in the spacebar row.

Manufacturing

It was quite obvious that reproducing the keyboard case, the mount plate, and the PCB would be costly but easy thanks to all the on-line prototyping services—at first, I only planned to make a single keyboard or a few keyboards, so the high manufacturing price of a single unit was not an issue. The keycaps were the real challenge. Since I wanted to preserve the unusual profile and layout, going with a standard set of keycaps was not an option for me. Also, I wanted to have nice thick double-shot keycaps (and tune the keyboard acoustics) but going into classic injection molding was outside of my budget.

The only course of action possible was to start ‘inventing’ my own manufacturing process that would allow me to produce the keycaps in small batches. This was a long and painful process, I tried a lot of possibilities and failed many times. Finally, after nearly three years of experiments, I created the necessary tooling on my small CNC and a set of moulds that work well. Each key with a legend has an individually machined die that is used to make a silicone legend mold. Making a key with a new legend takes about three days. The important stages of the process can be seen in this video showing the production of a key with an experimental ESC-legend:


In the end, this technique gave me enough freedom and allowed me to quickly experiment with new key profiles, legends, manufacutring processes, or exotic keycap mounts. This is very different from the traditional injection molding where any changes, once the tooling is machined, are problematic or impossible.

Keymap editor

The keyboard is not meant as a collectible (although you can keep it in your shelf if you want). From the very beginning I wanted the board to be easily configurable. One thing that I was missing was a layout editor that would suit my specific needs. This resulted in implementing a new keymap editor specifically for this keyboard. It is available on my site. Its use should be pretty straightforward but I plan to make a series of tutorials illustrating some of the advanced features (like the layer inheritance). The editor is able to export sources for QMK. Anyone interested can check this feature demo:


Orders

For the first batch I ordered compoments and material to make 50 keyboards. About 30 still available. Each keyboard kit is individually made to order, there are no preorders or groups buys, the payment is requested once the kit is ready to be shipped. I still have a few sets of vintage Alps (SKCM Orange, SKCM Salmon, SKCM Blue, and SKCL Green) to make some 8+ keyboards, so if you like these, this is perhaps the best time to place an order. :) )

What is next?

I hope there will be a second batch and more. In the future, I would like to make a reproduction of the older Symbolics 364000 and eventually the Space Cadet. Any tips or suggestions for future improvements are welcome!

Offline Boy_314

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Re: Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard
« Reply #1 on: Thu, 10 June 2021, 17:23:24 »
this is impressive work. heard high praise from jae at top clack and a few viewers who purchased one as well. i hope to own one eventually!

Offline Sup

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Re: Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard
« Reply #2 on: Thu, 10 June 2021, 19:49:28 »
Ah man this is insanely cool and it sounds super good even being in a metal case but, 900+ Euro is way out of my budget sadly. I would have bought the SKCL green kit for sure  :'(
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Offline Sintpinty

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Re: Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard
« Reply #3 on: Thu, 10 June 2021, 22:03:31 »
Hi guys, my first post on GH! I would like to introduce my keyboard project here. I have announced it on DT earlier this year but I guess it would not hurt to write a few details here since GH seems to be a bit different community. Anyway, I will try to avoid content overlap.

What is it about?

I have decided to make a close replica of the classic Symbolics 365407 (Rev. A) keyboard. This is the keyboard that came with the late 36xx series of LISP machines built and sold by Symbolics, Inc. in the 80s. If that does not ring a bell, it is a younger sibling of the well-known super-rare extremely-expensive Space Cadet (the last one that appeared on eBay was sold for $9,569). I tried to give the keyboard the same external dimensions as the original, including the layout and the curvature of the keycap dishes to preserve its original ergonomy. This is a comparison of the original and the replica:

Show Image


… and a mandatory typing demo (this one features the keyboard with different types of vintage as well as modern Alps-compatible switches I have used so far in custom builds):


Why this project?

I acquired one of the Symbolics keyboards about 5 years ago, made a USB conversion (I incorporated Hans Huebner's matrix scan algorithm into the TMK firmware), and started using it as my daily driver. I tuned my Emacs setup and the keyboard rapidly increased my productivity. The layout, however weird at first sight, is just ingenious. I love all the function and modifier keys and I am sure to never go back to an ordinary boring ANSI board. If Emacs is your editor of choice, I can highly recommend considering a Symbolics-style keyboard—the editor will suddenly make much more sense.
More
SPOILER: I do not want to contribute to the editor war here but I finally started to understand all the Emacs haters—they simply have not tried Emacs with a proper keyboard! Seriously, if you are a Scheme/Common LISP/Clojure hacker and enjoy Emacs with paredit, or use the org-mode extensively, a Symbolics-style keyboard is a must-have.

So, driven by my enthusiasm, I bootstrapped a small EU-based company and named the keyboard project ‘Keymacs’—probably not the most original name, but hey, the dot-com domain https://keymacs.com was available!

Comparison: Symbolics 365407 (Rev. A) vs. Keymacs A620N-88

There are a few differences between the original and our keyboard. As mentioned before, I tried to preserve the original dimensions and the overall erognomy, including the specific layout. Materials and internal organization are different and are subject to component availability, design decisions, and my own personal tastes. Here are some details:
  • The original case is two-part, the top is thick plastic, the bottom is a bent steel plate with large rubber stripes. Our case in two-part machined aluminium with sand blasted and annodized matte finish. It is held together with 10 M3 screwes and uses 3M bumpon feet. The case itself is pretty heavy (3 lbs and 10 oz / 1.644 kilos), it is designed to act as a clamp for the steel mount plate.
  • The original keyboard has an all-grey color scheme, our keyboard uses a black/grey color scheme that is inspired by the older Symbolics keyboard (PN 364000). I personally like this color scheme more than the original. Also, since the keycaps are double-shot polyurethane (details follow), from the manufacturing point of view, the black is much more forgiving.
  • The original legends are black on grey (or red on grey in case of the modifier keys). Our legends are white on black, the functional and modifier keys are blank grey. The font used on our keyboard looks more 70s. It has been designed from scratch with old terminal aesthetics in mind.
  • The switches on the original (Rev. A) are Hi-Tek 725 (a.k.a. space invders), linear and rather heavy. Our keyboard is designed as Alps-compatible. This was actually one of the major decisions and it was not an easy one. I personally like lighter switches that allow me to type faster, Alps SKCM Oranges being my favorite, this was one of the factors that determined my final decision on switches.
    More
    At the beginning of my keyboard adventure I had zero knowledge of switches and ‘mechanical keyboards’ in general, so I acquired a few of the vintage classic boards just to get an inspiration and to get some insight. After experiencing the beamsprings, buckling springs, and Micro Switch Hall effect switches, I have come to a conclusion that I do not want to make another board based on Cherry MX (or MX-Compatible) switches. Actually, the quality of switches on the market was a source of a great frustration and at some point I seriously considered to reproduce some of the vintage switches (I am glad I dismissed that idea, at least for the moment, maybe I reconsider that in the future).
  • The original keycaps are thin ABS double shots. Our keycaps are hand-cast polyurethane double shots. That's right—the alphanumerical keys consist of white individually made polyurethane inserts that are overmolded in black. I do not know if that counts as ‘artisan keycaps’ (I have no tanks, skulls, or traslucent alien keycaps) but the production of a single set of keycaps takes about a week and involves a tedious hand work where a lot of things can go wrong (so, at least the term hand-made is appropriate here). This I hope explains the price tag of the keyboard.
  • The original had a non-detachable proprietary cable, our keyboard comes with a rugged Amphenol USB connector. The main PCB of our board has an open design (a simple 10x10 physical matrix) and supports PJRC Teensy controllers.
To give you more idea of the internal organization, here is a photo of a hollow SLS-printed section of the keyboard with an ortholinear mount plate and a dummy stainless PCB:

Show Image


As you can see, the mount plate is placed lower in the case than it is usual. This has been one of the design decisions that I believe contributed to the (in my opinion) great sound of the board. As a result, the board cannot be made MX compatible because the pins of MX-Compatible switches will not fit in the spacebar row.

Manufacturing

It was quite obvious that reproducing the keyboard case, the mount plate, and the PCB would be costly but easy thanks to all the on-line prototyping services—at first, I only planned to make a single keyboard or a few keyboards, so the high manufacturing price of a single unit was not an issue. The keycaps were the real challenge. Since I wanted to preserve the unusual profile and layout, going with a standard set of keycaps was not an option for me. Also, I wanted to have nice thick double-shot keycaps (and tune the keyboard acoustics) but going into classic injection molding was outside of my budget.

The only course of action possible was to start ‘inventing’ my own manufacturing process that would allow me to produce the keycaps in small batches. This was a long and painful process, I tried a lot of possibilities and failed many times. Finally, after nearly three years of experiments, I created the necessary tooling on my small CNC and a set of moulds that work well. Each key with a legend has an individually machined die that is used to make a silicone legend mold. Making a key with a new legend takes about three days. The important stages of the process can be seen in this video showing the production of a key with an experimental ESC-legend:


In the end, this technique gave me enough freedom and allowed me to quickly experiment with new key profiles, legends, manufacutring processes, or exotic keycap mounts. This is very different from the traditional injection molding where any changes, once the tooling is machined, are problematic or impossible.

Keymap editor

The keyboard is not meant as a collectible (although you can keep it in your shelf if you want). From the very beginning I wanted the board to be easily configurable. One thing that I was missing was a layout editor that would suit my specific needs. This resulted in implementing a new keymap editor specifically for this keyboard. It is available on my site. Its use should be pretty straightforward but I plan to make a series of tutorials illustrating some of the advanced features (like the layer inheritance). The editor is able to export sources for QMK. Anyone interested can check this feature demo:


Orders

For the first batch I ordered compoments and material to make 50 keyboards. About 30 still available. Each keyboard kit is individually made to order, there are no preorders or groups buys, the payment is requested once the kit is ready to be shipped. I still have a few sets of vintage Alps (SKCM Orange, SKCM Salmon, SKCM Blue, and SKCL Green) to make some 8+ keyboards, so if you like these, this is perhaps the best time to place an order. :) )

What is next?

I hope there will be a second batch and more. In the future, I would like to make a reproduction of the older Symbolics 364000 and eventually the Space Cadet. Any tips or suggestions for future improvements are welcome!

I like how thin it is

Offline mrvco

  • Posts: 100
Re: Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard
« Reply #4 on: Sat, 12 June 2021, 11:35:20 »
This looks amazing.  Has one been sent to Chyrosran22 to evaluate yet?

Offline lispnick

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Re: Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard
« Reply #5 on: Sun, 13 June 2021, 03:05:44 »
This looks amazing.  Has one been sent to Chyrosran22 to evaluate yet?
Not yet but I plan to contact him soon.

Offline livewirerc

  • Posts: 36
  • Location: Austin, TX
Re: Keymacs: Modern Symbolics-style Keyboard
« Reply #6 on: Tue, 06 July 2021, 21:03:19 »
I've been stuck on HHKB minimal layout keyboards since I first tried one in 2016, but something about this fascinates me.