I recently gave a talk at a Berlin conference Beyond Tellerrand about keyboards used for fun and for art. I tried to breeze past the obvious stops (ASCII art, emoji, etc.), and focus on the lesser-known in-betweeners: typewriter mysteries, overtyping, PLATO emoticons, ELIZA, and keyboards in Japan.
I had fun working on this. You can watch it here:
It was also a talk filled with experiments. The unplanned one was being jet-lagged and sick with cold. I also created a talk companion app (you can read about it and see all the follow-up links), and added a “choose your own adventure” mechanism for myself (with its own keyboard shortcuts!). And, the organizer and I arranged for a little keyboarding fun booth:
But the most exciting experiment was an invisible one. Or, perhaps almost invisible. I will explain it below, but if you have a chance: watch the talk, and try to figure it out. What’s unusual about it? What’s something that’s happening that maybe never happened during a talk before?
While in Germany, I also spent a day at Erik Spiekermann’s letterpress studio. I made a few prints that look like this:
If you’d like one, I will choose three people among those who respond telling me one question you have about keyboards you’d like an answer to.
Each print is unique and of nice quality. I will ship it to anywhere in the world. Please send in your question by this Sunday, December 9!
We’re ten newsletter issues in! Thank you for being here. I wanted to share with you a list of newsletter stats so far. I find them mostly enigmatic, but maybe they’re useful or informative.
A few months ago, I worked with a design company Figma on a small feature that was inspired by the O.G. keyboard magician, Doug Engelbart. (And, this Sunday is the 50th anniversary of The Mother Of All Demos!)
If you’re interested in some keyboard-related books for yourself or loved ones, the list I made a year ago is still valid.
Since then, a new book came out that talks a lot about the fascinating design process behind the iPhone keyboard. It’s called Creative selection, and worth checking out.
(Lastly, I continue keeping my book bibliography up to date, if you want to go much deeper.)
Do you live in a country that’s neither America nor Poland? I’m trying to find interesting touch typing manuals from different countries, as those can be infinitely informative. If you wouldn’t mind being my tour guide of your local eBay equivalent, that would mean a lot – please get in touch?
A sample of my collection, with little language diversity
It’s hard to send a progress report, because progress is… hard to understand. My (dated) metaphor is that I see a progress bar like below – but at least I hear the hard drive clicking, so I know things are happening. I plan to have more tangible things to report next time!
That GIF took so much time to make, which is some sort of a metametaphor
Let’s go back to where we started.
I still remember the shock when years ago I watched a professor give a talk, and the slides changing behind him as if they were reading his mind. Eventually I figured out the secret: a remote in his hand.
I was hooked. I got one for myself the moment I started public speaking. And somewhere along the way, fueled no doubt by watching and admiring Ricky Jay (R.I.P.) and Penn & Teller, an idea blossomed: is there a way to go even further, to change slides in a way the audience wouldn’t know how you were doing it?
I mulled over many solutions over the years. You could time the slides, but that’s rather inflexible (although fun). You could have a confidant in the audience changing slides for you, but that is slow and error-prone (I tried it, too). Gesture detection à la Kinect felt tricky. Mind control? Above my pay grade. Any sort of semi-surreptitious keyboard in my pocket could be fun and very much on brand… but everyone would notice.
Permutation Typograph, Micro-Writer, and a modern Tap – three keyboards designed in part to be less visible
Eventually, my best idea was to control the talk via… my feet. And so I built an unusual shoe remote: twin little computers strapped to my ankles, connected to two small batteries and two pressure sensors under my toes.
Getting there was a challenge to a person unfamiliar with the world of Arduino-like devices, electronic engineering, and DIY components – and the photos of the process make me look like a madman:
There were weird challenges. How do I transport it all on an international flight (naked lithium-ion batteries alone can be tricky – not to mention, you know, scary-looking things inside your shoes?) How to solder it all together so it’s as small as possible? What kind of shoes do I need so there’s enough room and wiggling my toes is hard to notice? How do I prevent cramps? And how would I prepare for all of this to fail?
But in the end, it all worked. Watch the video above, look at my hands, and trust me if I tell you that every slide change is my left and right toe pressing down quickly, and then my left toe doing it alone.
A close-up of me during the talk, and the (disassembled) remote right after. Photo by
What does it all have to do with keyboards, though? It turns out, a really easy way to have something talk to your computer is to… pretend it’s a keyboard. Presentation remotes, credit card readers, many of the mice, and other things you plug in via USB are really just keyboards by any other name, often to the chagrin of security specialists. And so, the sensors and the tiny computers turned each of my toes into a virtual key – F5 for the left foot, F7 for the right – and sent them over to the slide deck using Bluetooth.
It’d be fun to add haptic feedback so I can be sure the slide advances without checking. And maybe next time I’ll challenge the audience to actually figure out how I’m doing it – at which point it really becomes a magic show, with a proper script and necessary misdirection. I don’t know yet. Right now, I’m letting you on this secret, and hope you keep it to yourself.
I’m not going to lie: using it felt awesome. But I like it for even more reasons. Without wanting to, I ended up building a weird keyboard. (And god knows I’ve seen many of these in my research.) And without trying, my secret remote became a celebration of keyboard magicians.
I feel it’s a testament of some sort that “keyboard magician” could mean so many kinds of people. A co-worker who looks up to you as you approach them, their hands still typing. Really good gamers. Speed typists like Lenore Fenton, who could address an envelope with more style I ever imagined possible. August Dvorak and other people who analyzed keyboard layouts. Keyboard makers and key cap designers. And artists like Raquel Meyers, Paul Smith, and Madge Roemer I mentioned in my talk, who all turned keyboards into something in between a paintbrush and a piano.
Keyboard-made art by Madge Roemer, Montserrat Alberich i Escardívol, and Raquel Meyers
It felt appropriate for the remote’s christening to happen during this particular talk. But there was one more unexpected discovery.
I spent a lot of time making sure the shoe keyboard advanced reliably, but I also had to make sure it didn’t advance when I didn’t want it to. Why? I needed to be able to freely walk on the stage. That’s the reason I had two sensors in two shoes (as you walk, you’re always pressing on one). That’s why I added delay and velocity detection – my toes had to tap with vigor and together. That’s why I implemented debouncing, added a master switch to shut it all down in case of trouble, and put a backup remote in my pocket. I felt ready. But I didn’t predict one thing.
(Photo courtesy Suzan at suzansworld.com.)
Imagine me right there, a minute before my talk, standing just off the stage, dying to Start Talking Already (waiting is the worst part). The audience is trickling in after the break, the music is playing, and the conference organizer walks out on the stage to announce me. As he starts talking, I take a brief glimpse at the confidence monitor right in front of him. Then I have a mild panic attack as I realize the presentation is currently – somehow – on the sixth slide.
This is the first time something goes truly wrong. But as I’m pulling the backup Logitech out my pocket, I realize it was neither my hardware nor my software. I did it all myself by… tapping to the music.
The conference DJ, Tobi Lessnow, with his keyboard that had more power than mine. (Photo by Marcel Otten.)
It was the most poetic of failures. The very talk I was just about to start was ostensibly about fun and art, but it really was about humanity: how people across ages used keyboards to affirm, protect, or celebrate being human. It felt fitting that I would mess it all up for the same reason.
Fortunately, I equipped my awkward shoe keyboard with a slide reversal, in case things went wrong. And so I repeated [short tap with two toes + long tap with two toes] five times just in time for the introduction’s end, and then walked onto the stage.