The keyboard is functionally invisible. It's the single piece of hardware you touch the most. But despite being your primary interface with the digital world, it's remained almost unchanged for decades, ignored, except for the small community of enthusiasts who design, program and build their own — like the Infinity Keyboard, a new mechanical keyboard that a group of more than 1300 fans helped design.
These communities are at the crest of a wave of newfound popularity for the good old mechanical keyboard — the they sing the praises of its real, physical key switches, its inherent tweakability, and the sheer pleasure of actually hitting a key that compresses with a satisfying clack (LifeHacker has a great history of the mechanical keyboard here).The experts who build these boards range from engineers to tinkerers, and they are a perfect example of the maker movement's skill at turning a deep knowledge of a specific device into an actual product.
For companies like San Francisco-based Massdrop, they represent an opportunity to wed the expertise of superfans with the back-end manufacturing and business skills they often lack. "It's kind of like a Kickstarter project," Massdrop CEO Steve El-Hage told me in a phone interview. "You have people who are really passionate and knowledgeable about one thing, but the skill set required to mass-manufacture that product is very different."
Massdrop's business model is simple: Seek out superfans — be they headphone fans or keyboard fans — and find out what they want if they were in charge of the product pipeline, from design to manufacturing to pricing. Then take that theoretical product, and using a team of in-house manufacturing and sourcing experts, piece together the necessary parts to actually build it for the X number of fans who have committed to buying it.
That's exactly what the two-year-old company did with keyboard experts from online forums like Geekhack, with whom Massdrop launched the Infinity Keyboard today.
Building A Better Keyboard, From Software To Circuits
Massdrop calls the Infinity the "first truly programmable mechanical keyboard." It's the result of a collaboration between 1,300 mechanical keyboard fans, led by a small team of experts along with Massdrop.
Using a series of polls, in-person meetings, and trips to the fab lab down the street, the group culled input from thousands of members of its forum about every aspect of the design: Multiple keyboard layouts, the software, the materials, the circuit board. Massdrop's designers helped them build prototype after prototype.
But it was experts from within the community that did the design work: Jacob Alexander developed a new open source software that allows users to program the board in any way they see fit — from altering the layout to creating shortcuts for long pieces of code. Another participant, Gennadiy Nerubayev, designed the printed circuit boards, while Brandon Muzzin designed the stainless steel plate the setup rests on.
The 1,300-person community voted on the details of the hardware, like the Cherry MX or Matias switches, the stainless steel plate the board sits on, and the PBT keycaps. Massdrop helped them fabricate prototypes from cardboard to actual circuit boards at San Francisco's TechShop — and built a layout configuration program that lets buyers easily customise their boards online.
Most importantly, perhaps, they negotiated the mass buys of hardware components and manufacturing process. "Our team thinks [the community] is doing all the hard work, and the community thinks we're doing all the hard work," says El-Hage.
Crowdfunding, But Smarter
The Infinity will sell for between $US129 and $US99 today, since the price is tethered to the order size. It arrives as a kit that buyers self-assemble and customise themselves with a simple soldering iron. The price point is made possible by the fact that Massdrop can guarantee a certain number of orders to the manufacturer beforehand (it takes a marketplace cut of the final price as its fee, too).
In a way, it really is similar to the fundraising model Kickstarter uses, but without the various uncertainties associated with crowdfunding. Since Massdrop's team includes engineers with the know-how to fabricate and program and prototype, work on a final model goes faster. Since they have experience and contacts with manufacturing, there's no risk of not being able to deliver the final product. And since it's designed with the input of — in this case, thousands — of enthusiasts, it's less one person's bright idea and more the evolution of a dream product of many.
The way consumer electronics are made is changing. Bitcoin mining rigs are a perfect example of this shifting economy: Small communities of enthusiasts source and order their own hardware from overseas at increasingly speedy cycles — and, just as often, fall prey to bad sourcing deals or delays in production that render the final product all but useless. Massdrop's model is to act as a more nimble middleman for these DIY hardware makers.
It's almost as if they took the culture of an old-school 1990s online forum and grafted it onto a present-day product design studio: It's the deep, deep expertise of the crowd, articulated through the appendage of engineers and designers. Check out the Infinity here.