Space-Cadet Keyboard Design

By Xah Lee. Date: .

The following is from , accessed on 2019-02-28.

it's about design of the space-cadet keyboard, by John L Kulp

This file contains some ideas about the keyboard design for the LISP machine. --- JLK

Constraints Assumed:

(1) Using a Microswitch 103S keyboard. This keyboard contains a microprocessor (8748) with an on-chip EPROM memory, which can be programmed to do many sorts of decoding or interfacing (e.g. a mouse interface). It is about 4″ wider, overall, than the existing meta keyboards, and can support about 22 additional double-size keys. I also has built in drivers for a speaker for audio feedback. It can have LED's in certain keys. Why are we using this keyboard? Well, the hall-effect Microswitch key mechanism is considered to be the only highly reliable key mechanism and we are happy with the performance of the existing keyboards. Second we want to minimize the amount of additional circuitry required to make the keyboard work (hopefully, this will only involve line drivers/receivers, and only when keyboards are far away from the LISP machine). Third, it would be nice to have the mouse interfaced via the keyboard, to reduce cabling, etc. It is nice to have a keyboard that requires only one powersupply voltage (+5V). For double the price, we could have keys with selectric-type tactile feedback, but it doesn't seem to be worth the cost. With this keyboard, we should be able to detect key-up transitions if desired.

(2) Compatibility. It would be a win to have the new keyboards be cabable of a line protocol compatible with the existing ones. Second, people generally want the keyboards usable with ITS and SAIL programs (e.g. altmode easy to type and a TOP key with the crufty SAIL keytops). It is not clear to me that SAIL key top compatibility is such a win, but I think some people will want it badly. More on this later.

Some Assumptions:

(1) Alphabetic, ;, :, comma, period, /, 1-0, shift 1-0, SHIFT, RUBOUT, RETURN, LINE, are the same as existing AI keyboards.

(2) Control and Meta should be moved closer to the space bar (this is mostly limited by the restrictions of the available layout).

(3) The LISP community has been asking for years for lower case parens.

(4) Keyboards are not display devices. Hence, no LED buttons, lights, etc.

(5) Keyboards do not make good acoustic enclosures. A speaker for audio feedback clicks would be ok, but a speaker for feeps and more general audio output should be located in the monitor, or (better) in separate speaker enclosures.

(6) Keys which are not reachable while touch typing (that is, not reachable without picking up your hand) should be associated with functions that you are not likely to be typed within a stream of text. Editing-type functions are to be avoided, while job control, quitting, etc. are acceptable. The idea is that if you have to pick up your hand to hit a key, you want it to be at a time when you are likely to be pausing your interaction with the machine, rather than in the midst of a flurry of typing. Clearly this depends alot on the particular user.

Modifier keys:

Shift, Shift lock, Control, Meta, Top, and Greek. Shift is in the standard place, Control is placed directly under shift, as it is the most common modifier key typed. Ideally, Control should probably be shifted over about 1/2 key position (towards the outside) with respect to SHIFT. Unfortunately, bag-bitting Microswitch makes this essentially impossible. Thus we have to live with a 1 1/2 size key whose inner edge lines up with the inner edge of the SHIFT key. Due to layout lossage, the left side meta is not exactly adjacent to the control key, but is shifted slightly to the outside. Right side meta is flushed (roar...) because there is no place where it can be located under the layout constraints where it would be useful, and no one I have talked to yet ever uses it. If there is a tremendous out cry, that will be reconsidered. Shift lock is a single size key to the outside (left) of the (left) meta key. A Greek key is probably more useful than TOP in many cases, allowing the direct typing of a full Greek character set. It would be a single size key next to SHIFT (on the left, and a 1 1/2 size key on the right). TOP would exist only on the left, and would be to the outside of GREEK. People who touch type shift-lock probably wont like it where it is. One option is to suffle TOP, GREEK and shift-lock so that shift-lock is next to shift (like on typewriters), GREEK is next to shift-lock, and TOP is next to META.

Lower case parentheses

To be useful, these must be within range of touch typing. Therefore, one proposal is to put () where [] are on the current keyboards (next to P), put []{} where @ and ^ are, put @ and ^ where \/ are, and put \/ where BS is. You should look at a layout sheet to see how this works, since there are different layout contraints which make this somewhat more reasonable than it might otherwise seem.

Non-alphabetic keys:

There are many more slots for these types of keys in the new keyboard. We have attempted to define some generic operations that we might want to have keys for which are fairly independent of the system the keyboard is used on (that is, they would work as well on ITS as on the LISPM in many cases). Editing type operations are avoided, as many of these keys are inaccessible without moving your hand. There are at least 3 categories of such keys: keys which almost every one agrees would be a win (e.g. RUBOUT, CALL, QUIT,...); keys which several people have agreed with me might be a win; and keys which might be a win for some people, and useless to others. We have tried to avoid using keys in the latter category in the proposed layout. Explanations of how the keys are to be used are made following the list.





Losing Keynames: FORM (ambiguous, paper tape TTY vintage), CLEAR (not specific enough), BS (well, maybe we do need a Bull Shit key...), ESC (too vague), VT, Back/next (maybe this isn't so bad, but its use on ITS is certainly completely random), grad, del, etc.


RUBOUT and RETURN are placed as on the current keyboard (I particularly like the placement of RUBOUT). TAB is moved in next to the Q key and ALTMODE is made a double width key (probably next to RUBOUT). LINE is next to RETURN as before.

HELP and QUIT are so universal that they should be separate keys. There is usually a pause after typing them as you wait for things to happen (QUIT generally implies flushing buffered type ahead and HELP usually involves some lookup). QUIT should be isolated with space around it so that it is very hard to type accidently.

CALL is used as it currently is (is anyone unhappy with it?)

CLEAR SCREEN is used to replace the function of FORM. It is more explicit, but it is such a universal function, that I believe it is worth making it very specific (making keys specific, in general, is probably not a good feature, but I think it is in this case). CLEAR INPUT is used to flush currently buffered input (like in DDT, etc.)

TERMINAL ESCAPE, NETWORK ESCAPE, SYSTEM ESCAPE (or perhaps just TERMINAL, NETWORK, SYSTEM) are used to make the escape commands to various types of programs explicit.

BREAK is used for environment breaks, as in LISP or MACSYMA.

ALTMODE is there for historical reasons and for ITS. Its use in the LISPM environment is not that important. It wants to be a big enough key.

SELECT could be used to invoke a menu selection or initiate mousing or whatever. MENU is a possible alternative, but is rather overly specific. SELECT could be used for file displays and other things.

STATUS is used to invoke a description of status of a currently running process (who lines do some of this but are limited to one line. The MACSYMA ^] feature is the kind of thing I have in mind.)

QUOTE could be used for many things. One possible use is for quoting ESCAPE keys, CALL, etc when talking in a network environment or whatever.

Job control keys (I expect a lot of debate here...): Possibilities include BEGIN (or ENTER) a job (process), END (or EXIT), CONTINUE (RESUME), PROCEED, Someone hacking job system stuff should comment here...

DISPLAY is to be used for controlling display stopping and starting (I suppose this is marginal, but might be useful enough to warrant its own key)

After the above keys are included, there is still room on the sides for 12 (6 per side) single or double size keys. Note that the extra top row above 1-0 was used before these side positions, because it is probably easier to type them without moving one's hand. Options for these side keys are:

Put no keys there. Probably a win to keep the keyboard less cluttered.

Put blank keys there.

Put keys with simple labeling there (A-E or F1-F6 or B1-B6 etc.).

Put keys with some functions there (DELETE, KILL, FOOBAR, etc.)

Put a Arch. Mach. type 3″ touch pad there.

Put a small pillow there for resting tired hands...


Alpha thru Pi along the bottom row should be flushed if we keep the GREEK shift. They could be replaced by other things (suggestions?). Should we flush SAIL key tops all together (you could still get them via TOP and a bingo card...). Should we put greek chars there instead? Or nothing?

Other comments:

Running SUDS - ()@^ could be used, or []\/ as now. GREEK gets mapped into TOP for cursor moving.

Some people would like a larger minus key because so many names in the LISPM environment are hypenated. Maybe lowercase + also?

Does anyone care that Grad and DEL are flushed?

Does anyone care that back/next is gone (not its function!) or BS or VT. For ITS users, the functions of BS, VT, FORM, etc. could be replaced by some of the job control keys, DISPLAY, etc. back/next is replaced by SYSTEM ESCAPE.

This keyboard design is going to be poured in concrete in about 2 hours, so get your comments in...

[This file was written by JLK with input from several people, most notably, BEE]

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