DMOTE rationale

In 2010, I worked side by side with a user of Dvorak for the first time. I had heard of Dvorak long before that. Seeing it in action was impressive and annoying.

Using Vim and other keyboard-friendly technologies typical of a GNU+Linux development environment, my colleague, Albert Diserholt, was extremely productive and equally loud. I was envious and tempted by Dvorak, but it is needlessly hard to adopt from QWERTY and its most common form is unfit for Swedish.

For acoustic reasons, and due to a brush with RSI, my colleague and I both got Matias Ergo Pro keyboards. The Ergo Pro is quiet, split, tented and comfortable. It rearranges a few keys from the ISO standard, notably Delete, Home, End, Page Down and Page Up, in a way that got me thinking about further optimization.

Dissatisfied, I began to tumble down the rabbit hole of keyboard design. Over the span of several years I observed a confluence of enabling factors: The development of OpenSCAD, 3D printing, rigorous comparison of layouts, the proliferation of Colemak on OS distributions, the Arduino revolution in embedded programming, the QMK firmware project and a growing flora of experiments.

The more I learned about alternative keyboards, the more flawed the standard seemed to me. For instance, the horizontal staggering of keys on the Ergo Pro is a relic from the Sholes & Glidden typewriter. It makes the Y key on QWERTY hard to reach and twists the left wrist in touch typing. Its only selling point in the electronic age is familiarity, callously trapping each new generation in an inefficient system.

In November 2017, I began to act. I purchased both a Purism Librem laptop and a Keebio Iris.

There is nothing unusual about the keyboard on a Librem, but it is a US product. Purism would not deliver it with a Swedish layout, so before buying it, I switched to Colemak and took the opportunity to learn touch typing, something I had not been taught in school. After a full weekend of intense practice and an embarrassing work week, I got comfortable. Colemak on GNU+Linux has Swedish letters on the Alt Gr (right Alt) layer. It’s a lot better for computer programming than Swedish QWERTY, because all major programming languages were designed for the punctuation and brackets on the US layout. Colemak is good enough as far as the letters go, but the physical shape of a standard keyboard is not.

The Iris is a kit keyboard for enthusiasts. Like the Ergo Pro, it is split and supports quiet Matias switches. Unlike the Ergo Pro, the Iris is columnar or “vertically staggered”. It is programmable with QMK. It is more compact, requiring minimal hand movement. It also has 4 keys for each thumb, compared to about 1.5 on a normal keyboard (Space and Alt).

It turns out 4 thumb keys is not enough for me. The thumb is stronger than the (other) fingers. There is no good reason why it should have fewer keys. Unfortunately, the flatness of inexpensive PCBs has had the side effect that virtually all keyboards are flat, including the Iris. Even expensive concave ergonomic keyboards have flat thumb clusters, laid out roughly on a level with the rest of the keyboard. This means you are pressing some thumb keys sideways, not with the pad of the thumb in its natural direction of movement toward the fingers. This puts a shearing strain on the thumb.

Between Christmas and New Year’s I tried to remedy the faults of the Iris. I reconfigured the firmware for 6 thumb keys per hand. I designed a case that would provide space for the extra thumb keys in a good place, by tenting the PCBs. I never printed that design. It was not good enough. I figured that if I was going to print a case I might as well hand-wire it and get exactly the shape I wanted.

This is why, in January 2018, I began work on the DMOTE.