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2017 Sep 14

Mechanical parts are ready, waiting for certification

By | 2017-09-14T18:32:58+00:00 2017-09-14 18:32|electronics, manufacturing, news|6 Comments

Hi there, and welcome to our monthly status update!

TL;DR: All of the keyboard molds are finalized, and the plastic parts for the pilot run are ready. The PCBs of the pilot run are also ready, and waiting to be assembled. We’re waiting for TÜV to certify our design, and then the PCBs will get assembled. The printing factory is nearly ready with the UHK and palm rest boxes. We need about one and half month to start delivering batch 1. Please see the end of this update starting from the “The state of the pilot run” section to see why.

You can always check out the expected delivery date and update your shipping address on your Crowd Supply account page.

Mechanical parts

We’ve been tweaking the molds for seemingly forever. This process is usually extremely time-consuming and involves numerous iterations, especially for high quality plastic parts like the cases of the UHK. Thankfully, we’ve arrived at the end of this journey by manufacturing the top case parts, which were the only missing parts.

Of all the mechanical parts, only the baseplates of the palm rest are left undone. We weren’t completely satisfied with the coating of the latest samples we got, so we asked for new ones featuring three different kinds of powder coating.

We agreed that the middle, fine textured sample is the one to go with, as it most closely resembles the texture of the UHK case. The base plates of the pilot run are being laser-cut and they’ll be powder coated in a couple of days.

These plates will conclude the manufacturing of every mechanical part. Finding all the suppliers of the mechanical parts, and coordinating the manufacturing process has been an enormous undertaking for us as a small company, and we’re delighted to see that it’s coming to an end.

Pilot run PCBs

The 50 PCBs of the pilot run are ready, and waiting to be assembled.

UHK panel, top side

UHK panel, bottom side

Board assembly will start as soon as we receive the FCC and CE certifications from TÜV. Actually, the UHK may already be certified, we just haven’t heard of it because our contact person at TÜV recently quit. Now his boss is our new contact who is very busy, but nevertheless, he promised to get in touch with TÜV Netherlands and sort things out by the end of the week.

Printing the boxes

We’ve been in the printing factory lately, watching as the sheets of the UHK packaging as they get printed. I didn’t expect anything fancy and boy, was I wrong! The Heilderberg Printmaster printing press which was used to print the UHK packaging is a monumental machine and it was quite a sight.

The inside of the beast shown on its control panel

Packaging is not the meat of the product, but we do believe that it creates an impact, and we don’t like to leave any stone unturned, so we’ve put quite an effort into designing it. Hopefully it’ll show when you unbox your UHK and palm rest.

The state of the pilot run

We’re very close to assembling the pilot run PCBs, and sent out the pilot run surveys to the 50 participants recently.

Outstanding issues:

  • As mentioned above, we’re waiting for TÜV. As soon as the UHK PCBs get certified, we’ll commence their assembly. This can happen in days.
  • Also mentioned above, the base plates of the palm rests are being manufactured and then powder coated. These should be ready in a week.
  • We’re waiting for the UHK boxes, the palm rest boxes, and the back stickers of the UHKs. The printing factory should send the goods to us in about a week.
  • The case buttons of the UHKs have to be pad printed. We’ve received a couple of samples from a Hungarian company that had numerous issues. We found another, nearby company who will likely get the job done well and quickly, possibly in a week.

Once the above issues are resolved, assembling the pilot run UHKs will happen in a matter of days, and production speed will ramp up rapidly as we gain more experience regarding the assembly process.

The remaining 1,950 UHKs of batch 1 will follow quickly after receiving some feedback from pilot run recipients.

Given that the pilot run has yet to be sent out, then we have to gather some feedback from the pilot run recipients, and then assemble the next batch of PCBs, we have to push the current delivery date by one and half months, at which point the delivery of the remaining items of batch 1 should start. This brings me to the following point…

Some words about delays

Some of you are growing impatient due to the number of delays that have been introduced over the lifetime of the project. This is understandable, and we couldn’t be more eager to ship sooner. I’d like to elaborate a bit on why it’s taking so long to deliver.

You could see several bullet points in the above section, each involving at least one supplier of ours. We have dozens of such suppliers all around the world (mostly in Hungary, and some in Serbia, China, and Taiwan), and each of them was chosen from numerous suppliers.

For example, I contacted about 30 suppliers for the LED display alone, then chose one, and then exchanged about 200-300 emails with them, got a couple of samples, dealt with customs quite a bit, and all this resulted in the current LED display. And this is a single supplier!

András and I are running this show, two guys from Hungary. I work more than 300 hours a month solely on the UHK, and András is doing his fair share too. The only reason we don’t work more is because we can’t without flat-out burning out. We could add more workforce and experts to the project, resulting in faster progress, but they’d cost a lot of money and we have no room financially as custom tooling and starting and maintaining a supply chain and manufacturing capability is awfully expensive.

Speaking of finances, we’re extremely conservative. Full disclosure: I earn $2 per hour, and András earns $0 while working on the UHK mostly and in his own company part time. The vast majority of the money we spend is on manufacturing and R&D. We realize it’s your money and trust that you gave us to make this project a reality and we’re doing everything within our power to make this a success.

We could simply go to an OEM in China or Taiwan and use their resources to fix many of the issues we’ve encountered, but we’ve made a conscious decision to manufacture the UHK in our home country. The reason being that this way we can directly oversee manufacturing and QA without camping all the time in Shenzhen, and we can be more nimble in the long run, after going through the initial formidable hurdles of starting up all this.

I should also add that the UHK is not exactly an average keyboard, and not just a split keyboard, but a split, modular keyboard that is extendable with add-ons, which is something that, according to my knowledge, nobody has ever done before. The overall complexity of the project is quite staggering from a mechanical, firmware, electronics, and software standpoint compared to an average keyboard. In a couple of aspects, it’s the most complex keyboard ever made.

It’s also worth mentioning that we’re unwilling to make quality compromises, which also adds to the delays. Among many things, this has made the molds especially time consuming to make and refine.

When we announce a delay, it’s not because we were intentionally keeping quiet about it previously. It’s rather because of some unforeseen issue, like a critical supplier underperforming, a design issue that we couldn’t foresee, a supply chain issue, or virtually anything else we couldn’t think of previously. Very often we have to deal with these as we encounter them, and we always try to do our best. The road will eventually smooth out, but only after hitting every bump imaginable.

So, this is the long and the short of the situation. We’re really pushing it hard guys, and want to make this the best keyboard humanly possible. Let’s get there together, even if it takes longer than anticipated!

Thank you for reading this update! As always, we’ll be keeping you updated on a monthly basis via our blog and newsletter.

Talk to you on 2017-10-12!

2017 Aug 17

Further steps towards mass production

By | 2017-08-18T10:41:33+00:00 2017-08-17 18:14|electronics, manufacturing, news, prototype, tech talk|19 Comments

Hi there, and welcome to our monthly status update!

TL;DR: We’ve been making good progress towards mass production. The corrected prototype PCBs have been manufactured, tested, and sent to TÜV Netherlands for final certification. The PCBs for the pilot run are being manufactured. The configuration parser of the firmware has been fully implemented. BusPal got fixed, allowing us to update the firmwares of both keyboard halves. We’ll close the order cancellation period for batch 1 in a week.

You can always check out the expected delivery date and update your shipping address on your Crowd Supply account page.

Closing order cancellation for batch 1

Order cancellation for batch 1 will be closed in a week. You’re likely to be in batch 1 if your order was made on or before 2017-07-12. The reason is that we’ve already summarized the orders of batch 1, and we’re assembling these orders according to that plan. It’d cause a lot of potential problems to update the orders in the middle of assembly, and the best solution forward is to disallow order cancellation. You can cancel your order until 2017-08-24 but not afterwards. Thank you for understanding!

Assembling the plates and switches

Our team is working to assemble the 2,000 UHKs of the first batch. Right now, they’re busy with putting switches into the plates. So far, 1,000 pairs of plates have been assembled.

They’ve also half-assembled 150 pair of cases including the magnets, magnet-counter parts, and inserts, and excluding the small rubber feet and the back stickers. It’s a joy to see the fruits of their labor.

Miscellaneous parts

Lately, some simple but necessary parts arrived from our suppliers, such as the USB cables and the bridge cables. What you see are only some of the many boxes.

We’ve also finished with the metal guides. There are 16,000 of them.

1,300 flip-out feet have been molded.

These are a some of the 5,000 case buttons manufactured so far.

2,000 pairs of vertical PCBs have been fabricated. These will mate with the add-on modules, or with each other when the UHK halves are merged.

Palm rests

Finally, the palm rests for the pilot run are now ready.

Adding a pair of these palm rests to my prototype truly elevated the overall look and comfort level. It was like putting on the crown jewel.

Please note that backlit UHKs are not available yet. See our Everything about UHK backlighting post.

Electronics progress

Luckily, the bypass capacitor related fix that I outlined in our previous update solved the I2C communication issue, even though my initial fix didn’t.

When I soldered the through-hole capacitors to the previous version of our PCB it seemed like a success, but it wasn’t. I realized that communication was still unstable. Then I started emailing back and forth with Eben Qiu, field application engineer of ISSI, and he persuaded me that this must be the issue.

Eben sent me an application note titled AN-035-EN Layout Guidelines for IS31FL3731-SASL2 and a further Layout guideline document tailored to the UHK. Based on his advices, I slightly but carefully redesigned the board around the LED driver ICs. The main thing is that the bypass caps must be put as close to the GND and VCC pins of the ICs as possible. GND and VCC traces must be as thick as possible.

Redesigned PCBs featuring bypass caps close to the LED driver ICs

I’m happy to report that the new layout has made I2C communication rock solid, but it’s still possible that it’ll hang every now and then, so we’ll combat this issue in two other ways.

First, I’ve made sure that the state of the LEDs is cached by the master MCU and it only sends updates to the LED drivers when the LED values actually change. By minimizing the amount of communication, we also give minimal chance to the LED drivers to screw I2C.

Second, we’ll make the I2C driver much more robust, so that it’ll be able to recover immediately from errors. Only this solution will result in true robustness.

Having the chance to give the board more attention, I also improved the acoustic noise of the UHK. The noise level was already better than it used to be a while ago, but a subtle high-pitched noise could be heard in a very silent environment. Fortunately, Eben also shared another application note with me titled AN-012-EN Reduce acoustic noise of IS31FL3236 EVB.

I ended up using tantalum electrolytic capacitors instead of ceramic capacitors, which outperformed my wildest expectations in the acoustic noise department. The newest boards are so silent that I cannot hear a damn thing, even when putting my ear as close to the keyboard as possible. And that’s when every LED is driven with full power, which would generate the most noise.

Next up, we went to TÜV Hungary to conduct final measurements at their lab. We finished in the record-breaking time of an hour for both of our prototypes, with the best results so far, and then left the prototypes there. They will send them to TÜV Netherlands for final FCC and CE certification. We should have those papers soon.

Finally, I sent the gerbers to our PCBA contractor, and they started fabricating the boards of the pilot run.

Firmware progress

We’ve already had a fair number of talented contributors, and it looks like we keep attracting some of the best talent, and this time truly one of the best in the world.

The name of our most recent contributor is Erich Styger and his name is familiar to everybody who has ever worked with Kinetis microcontrollers. That’s because if you search for a Kinetis related issue, you’ll bump into one of his blog posts as the first result which usually also contains the solution to your problem.

Erich started out as a compiler engineer, then accumulated more than 20 years of experience as an embedded systems engineer, and now he works as a professor at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, and works with the ETH Zürich, and also for NXP. His MCU on Eclipse blog is the go-to place for everything Kinetis, and many consider him the world’s most knowledgeable professional in this space.

As you can imagine, Erich is very busy, but over a fair number of emails I’ve managed to persuade him that the UHK is the best thing since sliced bread, and given the development capabilities and open nature of our keyboard, he became quite interested in it. So much so that he allowed me to send him a prototype, then he sent us his fair share of contributions.

Every one if his contributions is a definite step forward, but the one I consider the most valuable is his BusPal fix, as it finally enables the right side firmware to route the firmware to the left keyboard, allowing us to upgrade the firmware of both keyboard halves, and coincidentally the firmwares of the add-on modules, too! He’s also written a relevant blog post on his blog.

Mad props and a pilot run UHK with a palm rest goes to Erich. I feel fortunate, thrilled, and honored beyond words to have him contribute.

Meanwhile, Eric (not Erich), our intern has been hard at work and finished fully implementing the configuration parser. He also started implementing the macro engine. Unfortunately, his internship period is over, so the macro engine is not ready yet, but he was making great progress which I’m very happy about. Thanks so much for your hard work, attention to details, and diligence, Eric!

With the configuration parser in place, the UHK is able to switch across keymaps which was the last major remaining parser related issue. The macro engine will not entirely be ready by the time of the pilot run, but we’ll be gradually shaping it, and it should be ready in the not so distant future.

In the meantime, I implemented an async I2C EEPROM driver, so now the firmware is able to transfer the configuration to and from the EEPROM, enabling the UHK to persist the configuration.

Estimated delivery and standing issues

These are the major standing issues that affect the delivery of the pilot run:

  • Top case parts: We’ve already molded numerous cases, but we’re still working on improving the surface quality of the top parts. The molds should be ready in 1-2 weeks at which point we’ll manufacture 150 pairs of them.
  • Packaging and back stickers: We’ve been working a lot on the design of the packaging of the UHK and the palm rest and we believe they’ll be very fancy. We’ve ordered 3,000 UHK boxes and 1,500 palm rest boxes which may take 3-4 weeks to be manufactured but hopefully we’ll be able to get some of them earlier for the pilot run.
  • PCBs: The PCBs are being manufactured and are expected to be ready in August. Then our PCBA contract manufacturer will assemble 50 of them for the pilot run.
  • FCC and CE certification: We don’t have a solid ETA about this, but chances are good that this will be done by the end of August.

The bottom line is that we’re doing absolutely everything we can to deliver the pilot run by the end of August.

Thank you for reading this update! As always, we’ll be keeping you updated on a monthly basis via our blog and newsletter.

Talk to you on 2017-09-14!

2017 Jul 13

Just before the pilot run

By | 2017-07-13T19:29:02+00:00 2017-07-13 18:42|electronics, manufacturing, news, tech talk|10 Comments

Hi there, and welcome to our monthly status update!

TL;DR: We’re making rapid progress with the assembly process. The firmware and Agent have matured significantly and become truly cross-platform. We have to make a minor design change on the PCB that will set us back by 2 weeks. Batch 1 has sold out and batch 2 will ship starting December.

You can always check out the expected delivery date and update your shipping address on your Crowd Supply account page.

Batch 1 has sold out

Given the uninterrupted pre-sales period since the end of our campaign, the first batch of 2,000 UHKs has just sold out. That means that going forward, new orders will fall into batch 2 which can be expected to ship in December.

Your orders will still be served on a first-come, first-served basis, but this delay between batch 1 and batch 2 is inevitable as we ramp up production.

Starting from batch 3 we expect to have a decent stock, so we’ll be able to provide you UHKs without any delay.

The inner assemblies are coming together

The inner assembly is comprised of a number of parts that reside inside the UHK case.

16,000 metal guides are already made. We'll have to press-fit the pins into half of them. Speaking of the pins, we’ve further optimized them. We’ve switched to using pins with spherical ends and a hardened surface, resulting in a heavenly smooth, yet solid merge-split experience. Perfecting these guides was an art unto itself.

Guides with spherical pins

600 pairs of plates have been manufactured and zinc-plated.

Zinced plates

We’ve learned that seemingly mundane parts like keycap stabilizers can take surprisingly long time to assemble. There are two identical left and two right parts that slip together, then a metal wire is inserted into them. Thankfully, we’ve already finished assembling 5,500 of these.

Assembled stabilizers

The above results in assembled plates like these.

Assembled plates, front side

Assembled plates, front side

Assembled plates, back side

Assembled plates, back side

So far, we’ve assembled 150 pairs of plates, and 50 pairs of those will be used for the pilot run. These plates will travel to our PCBA contract manufacturer who will solder them together with the PCBs. Afterwards, the guides will be screwed to the plates, completing the inner assemblies.

Outer assemblies and miscellaneous parts

As you can imagine, one of the most complicated parts are the plastic cases. So far, we’ve manufactured 150 pairs of bottom cases, and 2,000 pairs of case buttons.

Left bottom cases

Left bottom cases

Right bottom cases

Right bottom cases

Case buttons

Case buttons

The molds for the upper cases are being tweaked and we expect them to be perfected within 1-2 weeks, at which point we’ll put them to good use and manufacture 150 pairs of top cases.

Apart from the above, there are still a fair number of parts that go with the outer assemblies including the magnets, magnet-counter parts, rubber feet, inserts, back stickers, and a couple of screws.

Since our last update, we’ve also ordered 2,000 USB cables and bridge cables. Fun fact: the total length of these USB cables is 3.6 kilometers, or 2.23 miles.

Firmware progress

The firmware already works pretty well, but the configuration parser was very basic a month ago, only capable of parsing layers. It was clearly incomplete because it should parse not only a single layer, and not even a single keymap, but the fully-fledged binary configuration containing a set of layers, macros, and various items.

To my surprise, I received an email about a month ago from Eric Tang. Given his passion for keycaps, we’ve already exchanged numerous emails with Eric, but this email was different.

Eric asked me whether we have an internship program. He caught me by surprise and even though we’ve never had an internship program, I asked him what was on his mind exactly. As it turned out, Eric has written his own keyboard firmware based on AVRs and LUFA, making him the perfect candidate to develop the configuration parser of the UHK.

Since then, Eric has made tons of progress and now the firmware is able to parse almost the whole UHK configuration except macros. He’s now working on making the LED display show the abbreviation of the actual keymap, and then he’ll finish off macros, and develop the macro engine.

I feel very fortunate to have been contacted by Eric, and am having a great time working with him. The configuration parser shall be implemented soon!

Agent progress

Quite a few things have happened with Agent.

Right after Eric started working on the configuration parser, he couldn’t make Agent work on his Mac. I originally believed that it’s a privilege escalation issue, but Robi investigated further and realized that it’s a much deeper problem.

As it turned out, libusb, the library we used to make Agent talk to the UHK via USB isn’t supported on the Mac anymore. Apparently, recent OSX versions implement a new version of the USB subsystem which broke libusb.

Luckily, Robi found hidapi, the perfect alternative for libusb. In his true fashion, he didn’t waste his time, and ported Agent to use from libusb to hidapi. As a result Agent now runs perfectly on all the three major OSes.

Now, there’s only portability problem to be solved. blhost, the command line utility that updates the firmware of the UHK also utilizes libusb and it segfaults on OSX now that libusb is broken on Mac. Unfortunately, NXP doesn’t seem to care but fortunately, Santiago made me aware of pyKBoot, a python command line application that speaks the kboot protocol just like blhost, but which uses hidapi instead of libusb. I’ve toyed with pyKBoot a bit, and looks like it’s a viable alternative to blhost.

I think we can use pyKBoot but I’m not fond of it because we’ll have to package it as a standalone, self-contained executable, possibly using PyInstaller which will likely make the bundle size of Agent considerably larger than optimal. I’d really like to replace pyKBoot eventually with something more native to Agent. I think the best way forward is to port pyKBoot from Python to TypeScript later down the line.

Speaking of other parts of Agent, Robi has also implemented an auto-update mechanism. We have yet to refine it, but it seems to be already working.

Józsi also implemented a more general rendering mechanism for Agent, enabling it to render both ANSI and ISO keymaps according to your UHK version.

Electronics issues

Few days ago, I started to heavily test my backlit UHK prototype and found a serious issue. For some reason, the communication between the keyboard halves interrupted from time to time and eventually died.

Frustrated but determined, I delved into the issue and figured that it was caused by the LED drivers. When I disabled the LEDs, the prototype was rock stable. I further narrowed the cause, and found that the issue only surfaced when I enabled one of two LEDs, the LED of the right Alt key or the LED of the comma key.

I couldn’t make sense of this, so I got in touch with Integrated Silicon Solution Inc., the manufacturer of the LED driver ICs that we use. As it turned out, we didn’t place the bypass capacitor of the LED driver close enough to the IC. I soldered a through-hole capacitor as close as I could to the LED driver on my prototype and it solved the issue in no time.

Even though we don’t provide a backlit UHK version yet, many of you have expressed your desire to solder LEDs to your UHKs, so this is a big deal. Even more importantly, we already utilize the left side LED driver to drive the LED display and even though it didn’t produce such issues in itself, I fear that such issues could surface on a quite a few UHKs out of 2,000 UHKs, so this issue must be resolved.

Admittedly, this sucks, but thankfully, it’s a very minor PCB redesign which I’ll implement in about a day. We will, however, have to get new prototype PCBs made, assembled, and tested, so it will translate to a 2 week delay.

If there’s someone to blame, I surely am. I should have tested this way earlier. I’m sorry about this, but I’m also thankful because TUV hasn’t started testing our prototypes for the certification process and our PCBA contractor hasn’t started to manufacture the PCBs for the pilot run yet. I sent them notice just at the last minute. If I didn’t, we would have lost a lot of money due to this issue.

All things considered, even despite the PCB redesign, we’re getting very close. Pilot run notification emails will be sent out soon, followed by 50 UHKs, and followed by the rest of the 1,950 UHKs of batch 1. We cannot wait to finally ship!

Thank you for reading this update! As always, we’ll be keeping you updated on a monthly basis via our blog and newsletter.

Talk to you on 2017-08-17!

2017 Jun 15

Tweaking the molds and preparing for the pilot run

By | 2017-07-13T00:24:30+00:00 2017-06-15 20:37|design, electronics, features, manufacturing, news, prototype, tech talk|19 Comments

Hi there, and welcome to our monthly status update!

TL;DR: The BOM is fully finalized and ordered. The UHK prototypes have improved a ton in the EMC department. Agent and the firmware has evolved a lot. The key cluster and trackball modules have been mechanically prototyped and tested. New developers joined our forces. We've tested the molds and found some issues which will introduce some delay. We plan to ship a pilot run of 50 UHKs in July. The rest of the UHKs are planned to be shipped starting from August. Please read on!

You can always check out the expected delivery date and update your shipping address on your Crowd Supply account page.

EMC improvements

We've been visiting the EMC lab of TÜV since our first successful test. The reason is twofold. First, we wanted to improve on the results, and second, there were some further tests to be done.

The testing results that we shared with you the last time already passed, but the safety margin was only 2 dbμV/m, instead of the recommended 5 dbμV/m. Our worry was that the margin was so thin that it was possible for the final test to fail. We really wanted to avoid any potential failure, so we have been tweaking various resistor and capacitor values, and have been trying various bridge cables and USB cables to make the margin wider.

You know what made a drastic difference? The USB cable. As soon as we tried a USB cable with a ferrite choke on the keyboard end, the EMC graph changed very substantially. Don't worry, this ferrite choke is only 24 mm x 14 mm in size, and it's very light so it doesn't weigh down the cable.

The updated EMC graph

According to this graph, we went from a 2 dbμV/m safety margin to about 18 dbμV/m! (See the vertical distance between the blue mark around 100M and the red line.) Given these results, we'd be extremely surprised not to pass the final test.

We've also conducted some further tests that we haven't done before. First, we put the prototype into the test chamber and tried to disturb it with focused radiation. We were watching it with a camera to see whether the LEDs go out, and checked it after the test. The prototype didn't break a sweat and kept functioning perfectly.

In the second test, the USB cable was put into a metal cage, and got a healthy dose of radiation. The criteria for this test is that the device can go out of service, but ultimately, it must recover by the end of the test.

The first time this test was executed, the LEDs on the left keyboard half went out and it didn't recover. After that, I made the firmware much more robust, and as a result, the left keyboard half was able to recover like a champ.

Speaking of LEDs, we got so many inquiries about backlighting that it justified its own post, so here you are: Everything about UHK backlighting.

Things are looking so good in the EMC department that I fully finalized and ordered the BOM for the PCBs of 2,000 UHKs, and if everything goes well the UHK will be certified very soon, possibly in June.

Agent progress

A lot has been happening to Agent, our configuration application recently. Józsi is still involved in the development of Agent, but he told me that going forward, he cannot guarantee a fixed number of working hours per month because his life got a lot busier. This made me search for the right candidates, and I'm happy to report that I found two excellent developers.

Róbert Kiss is busy with some of the most pressing Agent issues. Agent has an initial OS-specific privilege escalation step that allows it to access the USB interface of the UHK. Robi implemented the missing Windows-specific part of the privilege escalation step. He's also set up a build process, so that now Travis generates releases for Linux and Macintosh, and AppVeyor generates releases for Windows, and these files get uploaded to the releases section of GitHub. He's also mostly finished the auto-update mechanism of Agent.

Attila Csányi will be busy with a number of important but less time consuming issues given his limited time. He's already made the macro layout more responsive and made the currently selected key highlight and animate very nicely. These seemingly small issues add up big time when it comes to user experience.

Luckily, Józsi is still involved with the development of Agent. Lately, among other things, he's implemented ISO/ANSI layouts. Agent used to display only the ANSI layout but this change will allow it to show the correct layout, be it ISO or ANSI as soon as you plug in your UHK.

Firmware progress

Substantial progress has been made with the firmware recently. The easier part was making the communication between the halves more robust. First up, I added a CRC16-CCITT checksum to the messages between the keyboard halves to improve message integrity. Next up, I implemented a recovery mechanism for LED drivers so that the LEDs also recover when disconnecting/reconnecting the halves. I also made the communication packets between the halves more efficient and smaller.

The harder part is upgrading the firmware of the left keyboard half and add-on modules via USB. You see, it's fairly easy to upgrade the firmware of the right keyboard half because it's directly connected to the host computer. The add-on modules and left keyboard half however are not directly connected via USB. They're connected via an I2C bus to the right keyboard half.

The plan is to implement a proxy mode for the right keyboard half, so that it can route the firmware from the USB host to the left keyboard half and to the add-on modules via I2C. Luckily, such a protocol translator is already implemented so we can use it. It's called BusPal, and it's part of the KBOOT (Kinetis bootloader) package. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as mature as KBOOT, and it was obvious that integrating it to the UHK firmware won't be a walk in the park. I was searching for a proficient developer to make this happen but despite my best shot, I couldn't find a right candidate, so I had to try to integrate BusPal myself.

There were three variants of BusPal within the KBOOT package but I noticed that only one supported USB, so I picked it. In the beginning, I couldn't even build it because it was developed using the the proprietary IAR embedded workbench, not with the free Kinetis Development Studio that is based on Eclipse and GCC. I simply started by putting BusPal into a subdirectory of our firmware repo and trying to make it work. It was an uphill battle at first because BusPal has a huge codebase of which we need very little functionality. Just making the compiler happy has taken days, and after that it was even more work to make it functional. Luckily, over the course of about two weeks, BusPal enumerated over USB and could talk to the left keyboard half. Well, mostly.

Now, I can send protocol commands to the left keyboard half via BusPal but they don't work every time. As it turns out, the ROM bootloader of the KL03, the processor of the left keyboard half is buggy as documented by errata ID 8060, and these bugs have to be worked around. I can erase the processor and query properties, but the firmware upgrade command breaks. Given my myriad of responsibilities, I'd much rather delegate this last step, and it seems that I might have just found the ultimate developer. More about him later.

The state of add-on modules

Up until this point, not too much has been said about the progress of the add-ons. That's because our primary focus is getting the UHK to market, so András only works on the add-ons when he has some free time.

At last, I'm happy to show you the first version of the 3D printed add-ons:

These prototypes were printed using a white, powder-like material, but the final add-ons will be offered in black color.

Originally, we created two versions of the add-ons, one of them being totally flat, the other one being angled.

Flat key cluster module on the left, angled key cluster module on the right

We've been experimenting with a front and a top mini trackball on the key cluster module, but concluded that the top one is much more usable, so we'll ditch the front-sided mini trackball.

Angled trackball module on the left, flat trackball module on the right

The trackball module from the inside without the PCB

The reason we've made two versions is to test them and see which version is more ergonomic. The flat modules made our thumbs stretch significantly less, so we're confident that they're a better choice. This is also very fortunate from a manufacturing standpoint as the space inside of the add-ons is very limited, and even more so in their angled versions, so the flat versions will be easier to design and manufacture.

We also found that it's not a good idea to use two buttons per module because the inner button which is closer to the UHK usually gets pressed when pressing the case button of the UHK. Our plan is to only feature a single button per add-on, the outer button that is farther from the case button of the UHK.

This is a big step forward, but there's still a lot to do in the future. These plastic cases don't contain PCBs yet, so they will have to be designed. Luckily, the left keyboard half is an add-on module from an electrical, firmware, and protocol standpoint, so we will be able to reuse its schematic and firmware. These plastic cases of the add-ons are only made for mechanical testing purposes and need to be redesigned here and there because they are not manufacturable, and lack structural support.

Molding plastic parts

I'm a software developer by trade, so I have little knowledge about injection molding. A couple days earlier however, I was fortunate enough to observe the process up close in an injection molding facility where we tested our molds.

The mold of the top right case

As so many things, injection molding looks deceptively simple. Plastic flows into a mold, and the perfect plastic part falls out of the machine. Just like on this video:

In practice, lot of things can make a plastic part less than perfect, such as warping, which is the major issue we have mostly fixed.

You see, warping is a very common phenomenon, and it's usually so slight it doesn't matter. In our case however, it does. As it turns out, of all the keyboards ever created, the UHK is probably the most sensitive to warping. This is because when the plastic cases of the two keyboard halves are merged, it becomes extremely pronounced.

When the UHK is merged and the halves warp even slightly, a very slight V shape can be noticed. This shape raises the four outer legs while the four inner legs firmly touch the ground which is obviously unacceptable.

Surface finish issues, such as sink marks and surface defects are another category of injection molding issues we have to deal with which we have also mostly fixed.

One way to fix the above issues is to tweak various mold and injection parameters which we were actively pursuing quite successfully during our three-day stay at the factory. It's mind-boggling how many parameters can be tweaked, such as the injection speed, pressure, after-pressure, mold temperature, the duration of the molding process, and many more. To make things even more complicated, these parameters are not single numeric values but rather graphs, and multiple points of the graph can be set along the time axis!

The other way to fix these issues is to modify the molds themselves. This is usually more time consuming and involves machining the molds in various ways. Some of our issues can only be solved this way.

We have a rough schedule in place regarding the plastic parts:

  1. Within days, the injection-molded cases will be scanned with a 3D laser scanner to reveal the inaccuracies for the molds to be fixed.
  2. In the next week, the left and right bottom molds will be fixed according to the above results.
  3. Another week later, we'll mass-produce the bottom parts for the pilot run.
  4. Within a month, we'll get all the molds fixed, fine-tune technological parameters, and manufacture every plastic part for the pilot run.

As for the big picture schedule:

  1. In July, we’ll manufacture a pilot run of 50 UHKs and send them out to our pilot testers, which include the various developers, contributors, and backers who have helped us along the way and indicated a willingness to help us rigorously test the UHKs before the main production run and work out any final kinks should they arise. All 50 pilot run units have been assigned, but if any of our pilot testers drops out and we need to fill a spot, we'll solicit volunteers. We haven’t talked about the pilot run yet, but we think it’s critical for the first UHKs to be tested before we actually start the main production run.
  2. In August, we'll launch the mass production of the remaining 1,950 UHKs. The goods will flow out continuously and be shipped approximately in the order they were purchased. Since we are using fulfillment centers in both Hungary and the US, there will be some variation in when your order is shipped, depending on your shipping address, but, basically, the sooner you ordered your UHK, the sooner you'll receive it.

Thank you for reading this update! As you can see, we have to deal with the molding issues which do introduce some delay, but at the same time, we're also making rapid progress. We're asking for your patience and support during these last miles. We'll make sure the UHK will be worth the wait.

As always, we'll be keeping you updated on a weekly basis on social media, and on a monthly basis in this blog and our newsletter.

Talk to you on 2017-07-13!

2017 May 27

Everything about UHK backlighting

By | 2017-06-12T14:57:10+00:00 2017-05-27 14:03|features, news, prototype, tech talk|29 Comments

We get a lot of inquiries on a regular basis, and it's blindingly obvious (pun clearly intended) that most of you are most interested about backlighting. In this post, I'm about to write everything you ever need to know about UHK backlighting.

First off, let me make it clear that currently we don't offer a backlit UHK version. The reason is that right now, we're solely focused on delivering the (non-backlit) UHKs, palm rests, and add-ons to our awesome backers. Everything else will follow afterwards.

On the bright side of things (pun clearly intended again), you'll be able to transform your non-backlit UHK to a backlit UHK by soldering LEDs to the circuit boards, and optionally replacing keycaps. Let's take a look at the following pictures:

Backlit UHK prototypes in daylight

Backlit UHK prototypes in daylight

Backlit UHK prototypes at night

Backlit UHK prototypes at night

In the above pictures, the top UHK features opaque keycaps and the bottom has backlight friendly keycaps. Please note that these pictures are a bit misleading because in real life the brightness of the opaque keycaps is much dimmer than of the backlit keycaps. It's also worth noting that the final backlighting will be better. We'll optimize the placement of symbols for more even light distribution and carefully choose the best LED. The most important takeaway is that opaque keycaps may suit some, but probably aren't a great choice for most.

In order to make your UHK backlit right away, you can purchase a number of LEDs and solder them to the PCBs. You will have to use 3mm (T-1) LEDs. Be careful to choose a LED type whose rim is not larger than the lens itself, otherwise the LEDs won't fit into the keyswitches. Also make sure to use single color LEDs as bicolor LEDs won't work well. You can pick any LED color but LEDs of the same forward voltage should be used, otherwise ghosting may occur. Fear not, we'll provide detailed instructions for soldering.

Alternatively, you can wait for our backlight upgrade kit that we'll release later. The backlight upgrade kit will contain white LEDs and a backlight friendly keycap set. In the beginning, we'll only provide US ANSI and ISO versions.

As for the release dates, we're really not sure yet. We'll probably release the backlit UHK version and the backlight upgrade kit about a year after delivering the first batch. We're also unsure about the price but it will be reasonable compared to the price of the UHK.

It's worth mentioning that although backlighting is a nice feature, the labels of non-backlit keycaps are easier to see in daylight.

Multiple brightness settings will be provided. One is a global brightness setting of 100 levels that affects every LED including both the LED display and the LEDs beneath the keycaps. The other is a per-key brightness setting of 256 levels which will enable us to do all kinds of fancy animations. This per-LED brightness setting can also be applied to the LED display as a whole. The formula is: actual brightness level = global brightness * per-LED brightness.

We plan to implement RGB backlighting eventually but surely not anytime soon, as it will require a complete redesign of the PCBs.

We also got a question about whether it's possible to solder only a couple of LEDs, for example only the LEDs of the home row. While it is possible, it will likely cause ghosting issues when using different per-key brightness values. This problem can be solved by telling the LED drivers which LEDs are actually present. We can implement a related user interface in Agent to mark individual LEDs populated/unpopulated, but we will only do so if there will be enough interest for this seemingly special use case.

Lastly, I'd like to note that while backlighting is clearly a neat feature, it's not necessarily better than not having backlighting. In broad daylight, the letters of the opaque keycaps are easier to see than the labels of the backlit keycaps. This is also true when the backlighting is off and simply backlit-friendly keycaps are used due to their material.

So this is it! Hopefully, all your questions are answered now. If not, please ask away in the comments. Have a beautiful weekend!

2017 May 18

EMC pre-compliance testing successful

By | 2017-05-18T14:56:02+00:00 2017-05-18 14:56|electronics, manufacturing, news, prototype, tech talk|16 Comments

Hello and welcome to this month’s UHK update!

TL;DR: Our most recent prototypes have successfully passed EMC pre-compliance testing. The final certification will be taking place in June and is expected to take 4-5 weeks which will push delivery to July. Manufacturing is proceeding apace. One of our prototypes has became a movie star.

You can always check out the expected delivery date and update your shipping address on your Crowd Supply account page.

EMC pre-testing

Not long after our previous update, we assembled 6 prototypes for the upcoming EMC pre-compliance measurement. These are v7.2 prototypes featuring EMC redesigns and related extra components, such as a ferrite choke.

Six UHK prototypes

This time, instead of going to T-Network, we went to TÜV which was a much better experience. Their control room is more modern and tidier.

Measurement room

They use a more sophisticated measurement software.

Measurement software

Their measurement chamber is more spacious.

Measurement chamber

We told you the last time that the laptop we brought didn’t pass the test in itself, so we’ve made sure to bring a MacBook Pro this time to avoid such problems.

Measurement chamber table

Please note that the we don’t provide a backlit UHK yet, but the prototype exists

The measurements taken by TÜV are of considerably higher resolution than those at T-Network, and they do take proportionally more time. Instead of taking around 3 minutes, they take about 15 minutes each. This time, we passed the test! You can see the result below.

EMC measurement

This may look like a fail, but it's not! There are two peaks that are above the safety zone, but as it turns out, there are two measurements involved. In the first measurement, the peaks get detected. In the second, the peaks are more closely investigated which usually results in considerably lower values. The final values are marked with blue rectangles below the peaks, and they're all within the safety zone.

This is clearly a much better result than anything we’ve ever measured, although admittedly, the safety margin is quite tight around 84 Mhz. Endre has an idea how to make it even better by replacing some components, and we’ll test his idea in a week, but we’ve already booked a certification date for June regardless.

We’ll send two final prototypes to TÜV Hungary by the end of May, who will in turn forward the prototypes to TÜV Netherlands where the actual certification will take place. The certification itself is expected to take 4-5 weeks. This is longer than anticipated and the PCBs can only be mass produced after the certification succeeds. Unfortunately, this pushes delivery to July.

Manufacturing news

Let’s see some major news from the manufacturing department:

  • 1,000 steel plates have been manufactured and 3,000 more are in the works. Placement of the switches into the plates will begin soon.

1,000 plates manufactured

  • A pilot run of 100 pairs of the wooden palm rest parts have been ordered, and 900 pairs are set to follow.
  • The testing of the modified injection molding tools will take place in a week.

One of our prototypes has became a movie star

About a year ago, the assistant propmaster of Netflix series Sense8 got in touch with us. She told us that there’ll be a hacking scene in the series, and asked us whether we could provide a prototype to be filmed. Of course, we said yes in a heartbeat. Fast forward one year, we got featured in the series!

UHK in Sense8

You can see the UHK prototype in:

  • S2E03 (Obligate Mutualisms): 20:02 (-31:13)
  • S2E04 (Polyphony): 2:11 (-55:56) multiple cuts in 10 seconds, 5:01 (-53:06)

And a couple more spots here and there. You’re welcome to let us know if you notice another scene.

Needless to say, we’re thrilled to be featured. Thank you so much for the opportunity, Netflix!

This wraps up our May update, Ladies and Gentlemen. A lot of things are happening in parallel as usual, and with the certification of the PCBs on the horizon, we’re really getting close.

As always, we’ll be keeping you updated on a weekly basis on social media, and on a monthly basis in this blog and our newsletter.

Talk to you on 2017-06-15!

2017 Apr 13

A huge influx of parts

By | 2017-04-13T15:26:47+00:00 2017-04-13 15:26|design, electronics, manufacturing, news, prototype|12 Comments

Hello again and welcome to this month’s UHK update!

TL;DR: We’re inching towards mass production. We’ve received tons of parts from our suppliers. The design of the palm rest is finalized, and our new PCBs are being fabricated.

Our delivery date is unchanged, which you can always check out on your Crowd Supply account page.

Now let’s delve into the nitty-gritty!

Big boxes galore

Not long after the previous update, a van arrived, chock full of goodies.

The majority of the boxes contain switches. Lots of them. 127,000 to be exact.

You can see all the 6 switch types including brown, blue, red, black, clear, and green.

A fair number of boxes contain 131,000 keycaps. A single bag contains 1,000 keycaps of the same type.

Yet another box contains 11,000 stabilizers and 5,500 stabilizer wires. Assembling these little guys will be quite an exercise.

When seeing all the boxes neatly arranged, I couldn’t help myself, so I posted the following picture on April 1st.

You guys totally got it by immediately replying with the (in)famous 1970’s Bill Gates centerfold on social media. Well done!

Small bits and pieces

In the shipments were plenty of smaller parts, too. Let’s see what we’ve received.

A small sample of the nearly 2,000 LED displays

10,000 pogo pins

2,000 neodymium magnets

As a matter of fact, we’ve received another block of 2,000 magnets, but we didn’t dare to put the two blocks close to each other. The combined force of these magnets is formidable, which could have shattered the magnets, or even worse, our hands.

Final palm rest design

A while back, we showed you a palm rest version we thought was very close to final. Boy, were we wrong. As it turned out, the milled aluminium base plate had a tendency to bend a little bit when the legs were flipped out and force was exerted on the palm rest. András was looking into alternative design and came up with something we’re very proud of.

Now, we’re using a steel baseplate to connect the wooden part of the palmrest to the keyboard. This results in a stronger connection, making flexing a non-issue. As you can see, a recess was designed right where your thumb resides, which will make it easier to press the thumb button. We think it’s quite a useful feature.

The wood is more emphasized in this design, resulting in a classy minimalism. We plan to choose graphite color instead of the current brown color. We believe it will look just as beautiful as brown, and it will gel better with the black color of the keyboard.

We’re waiting for yet another sample, then we’ll pick a manufacturer, and launch the mass production of the palm rests.

Redesigned PCBs

In our last update, we let you know about the EMC test results of the v7.1 UHK PCBs which were a lot better than v7.0, but still not good enough. Since then, we’ve finished the design of the v7.2 UHK PCBs.

The PCBs were redesigned by István based on Endre’s suggestions to reduce EMC emissions. Right now, they’re being fabricated, and should arrive soon. As soon as they arrive, we’ll assemble a half dozen prototypes and head to the EMC lab.

Speaking of the lab, instead of going to T-Network, we’ll go directly to TÜV from this point on. I recently contacted TÜV, and realized that they also do EMC pre-testing for a reasonable price. Even better, they will do the final EMC testing and issue the certifications, so it’s better to familiarize them with the UHK as soon as possible.

On the assembly front, we’ve just ordered electrical screwdrivers, screw dispensers, a glue dispenser, and a number of jigs are being made to speed up mass production.

A lots of further progress is expected soon. We’ll get 2,000 metal plates manufactured in the upcoming days, and the mold is almost fully ready, too, making it possible to manufacture the cases very soon.

In our true style, we’ll keep you updated on a weekly basis on social media, and on a monthly basis in these newsletters.

Talk to you on 2017-05-18!

2017 Mar 16

Improved EMC test results and incoming parts

By | 2017-03-16T16:43:33+00:00 2017-03-16 16:43|electronics, manufacturing, news, prototype, tech talk|30 Comments

Hello, and welcome to this month’s UHK update!

TL;DR: Our most recent EMC test results are much better than the previous results, but they’re still not good enough. We’re working hard on our new prototype to pass the tests, but this delays the project about a month. Lots of progress is happening on other fronts, too. Please read on!

Parts are flowing in

The UHK contains loads of components, and some critical ones are flowing in one by one. These are the most recent parts:

100 ANSI left, 100 ISO left, and 100 right plates have been manufactured so far. These plates will be used for the first production run. Of those plates, we have 20 of each in-hand to check their quality and accuracy.

These 2 plates were surface treated with Nickel and Zinc.

There are also loads of smaller components which arrived lately:

4,000 magnet counterparts laser-cut

A couple magnet counterparts after grinding

140,000 screws

2,100 FFC cables

We’ve already ordered the switches, keycaps, keycap stabilizers, and displays which are expected to arrive soon.

The manufacturing of the guides and magnet counterparts are in progress. These are multi-step manufacturing processes, and they’re well under way.

The state of the molds

Currently, the molds are being tweaked, and the tweaks are mostly cosmetic by nature. All things considered, they’re already in very good shape.

András showed the current case samples to one of his friends recently, who works for a contractor of a premium car manufacturer, and his friend was genuinely impressed by the quality of the case, so we’re already doing pretty good.

Apart from the cosmetic fixes, we also plan to add one or two snap fits to make the case more rigid when the palm rest is attached to it. These modifications won’t affect our schedule.

EMC testing, 2nd round

Here we go again. Since our last update, we’ve created new prototypes to be tested in the EMC lab.

These are actually 2 right keyboard halves. The left keyboard half hasn’t been redesigned because according to our tests, the USB is the major culprit when it comes to EMC issues, which is located on the right half.

We were told that a 4 layer PCB should perform better when it comes to emissions than a 2 layer one, so I decided that we should create both a 2 layer and a 4 layer PCB, and see how they stack up.

The naked eye can hardly tell the 2 layer and the 4 layer PCBs apart, so I put an “L4” identifier right after the PCB identifier text for the 4 layer PCB. Now it’s easy to tell.

Even though my hopes were high that we’d pass the tests with the new boards, I prepared for the worst, and was looking for expert help. That’s how I found Endre Köcze.

Endre has a lot of experience behind him as an electronics engineer, and he’s a pleasure to work with. He has taken a thorough look at the UHK design, and we went to the EMC test together.

The test results started off as quite a surprise. First, we measured only the laptop as a reference point, and according to the measurements it didn’t pass! Go figure.

Previously, we used Robi’s laptop which passed the test with flying colors. This, however, was Anna’s, my wife’s laptop. Admittedly, this laptop is not as fancy as Robi’s laptop, but it’s made by a reputable manufacturer, and it should also pass the test.

The first takeaway is that we’ll bring as many laptops as we can next time, pick the least heavily emitting one, and use it in further measurements.

Next, we put the laptop under the measurement table, and then its measured emission got just below the red line. But when we added a shielded USB cable, even with a ferrite on the host end, it went just above the limit. This is clearly not ideal, but this is the best we could do on the spot. The measurements are still useful, and we’ll use a better laptop next time.

In this setup, the UHK was on the table which is the center of measurement towards which the antenna points. Being under the table, the laptop didn’t affect the measurements so much. Next time, we’ll probably use a 5 meter long USB cable and put the laptop as far as possible.

Around the end of the measurement, the OS shut down because the battery was so low. We could still use the laptop without the OS running, but both the low battery state, and the fact that no OS was running might have affected the last 4 measurements. The lesson here is obvious: Power the laptop from a damn charger! And on that note, we’ll probably put the charger as far from the center of the measurement as possible, too, and use an extension cord to power it.

As for the actual UHK measurements, the results are very promising. The measurements of the 2 layer PCB were no more than 4 dB above the limit, and no more than 7 dB above the limit with the 4 layer PCB. This is very promising compared to the first round of measurements for which even 16 and 18 dB above-the-limit values were measured.

Endre has a concrete plan regarding the redesign of the PCBs. He’d like to add a common mode choke and ferrite beads at strategic places, and István is ready to redesign the boards accordingly.

In addition to the changes mentioned above, I plan to implement a number of firmware test features, so that we’ll be able to narrow down the cause of various spikes. I think of features like disabling I2C / USB / backlighting, and adjusting the clock speed of the MCU with dedicated keys of the keyboard.

I think that with all the above test procedures, test modes, and redesigns in place, we shall defeat the EMC issues with the next prototype which should be ready in a month.

Due to the EMC hurdles, we must delay delivery by a month. This is frustrating, but very much necessary to make the UHK happen. We’re working as hard as we can to hit it soon.

In our true style, we’ll be keeping you up-to-date in our weekly social media updates, and monthly newsletters. Thank you for tuning in, and talk to you on 2017-04-13.

2017 Feb 16

PCB redesign and firmware progress

By | 2017-02-16T18:16:12+00:00 2017-02-16 18:16|electronics, manufacturing, news, tech talk|24 Comments

Hey there! It’s February, and we have a new UHK update for you. A lot has been happening, and, barring unforeseen delays, we’re on track for April keyboard delivery. Let’s delve into the gory details!

Rubber feet and caps

There are small rubber feet and rubber caps on the ends of the flip-out feet of the UHK. Up until this point, we only had 3D printed versions of these caps, but the tooling has finally been created for them, so we got a couple samples.

Rubber samples

Rubber samples. The final rubber parts will be black.

Feet mounted

Feet mounted

The samples are surprisingly good for a first run. There’s only a very slight modification to be done to the tool to make it fit perfectly, which will completely eliminate the parting lines that are now slightly visible.

Steel guides

The steel guides are currently being manufactured. Here are some samples before vibration grinding them.

Force measurements

András has made a number of measurements with our new force measurement gauge.

To find the optimal pull force between the keyboard halves, András has made measurements using various magnets. They must not be too strong, but strong enough to prevent the accidental separation of the halves while carrying or during a fall. Some final tests still have to be made in the coming days, then the chosen magnets will be ordered.

Right-half bootloader completed

Even though the bootloader for the right keyboard half was already working, it wasn’t secured. That means that if we transferred a firmware image whose memory region overlapped with the bootloader memory region, the bootloader would have been overwritten by the firmware image.

Luckily, Kinetis devices offer hardware level memory region protection for such cases, which Santiago made a good use of. Now, with the memory protection in place, even if the bootloader would want to overwrite itself, it couldn’t.

But this isn’t the only safety measure that KBOOT, the Kinetis bootloader, provides. Let’s say that the firmware transfer gets aborted due to a power outage or for whatever reason. In such a case, the CRC checksum of the firmware doesn’t get updated and when plugging in the UHK the next time, KBOOT detects the CRC mismatch, and instead of jumping to the corrupted firmware, it stays active, waiting for a new, valid firmware transfer.

With the above protections in place, we believe that the right keyboard half is unbrickable via USB. I’m delighted that NXP offers such a comprehensive bootloader. It makes things so much easier and safer.

Santiago will make the bootloader for the left keyboard half work, too, but there’s something else to be done before then.

Firmware progress

The UHK firmware has already been working for quite some time, but some things weren’t exactly rock solid and optimized. This is about to change.

The reliable and resilient communication of the UHK parts is the core concern. If you think of the left and right keyboard halves, and the left and right add-on modules, these are all separate computers, and some of them contain multiple processors. The bus via which they’re interconnected offers a limited (although sufficient) bandwidth which must be utilized as efficiently as possible. To make things even more complex, any module can be disconnected, or connected any time, so hot-plugging must be seamlessly handled.

The main I2C bus of the UHK

First up, the communication should be made fully asynchronous. Synchronous communication was easy to implement because it’s just a sequence of instructions, but it’s highly suboptimal because it uses inefficient busy loops instead of interrupt handlers, and it’s hard to do robust error handling with it.

I was aware of these problems from the get-go, but I wasn’t concerned because I wanted to implement a working firmware as quickly as possible and improve it later. Now that we’re marching towards release, it’s time to solve these problems properly.

When changing sync code to async, the application logic changes quite a bit because instead of using a sequence of sync calls, an async callback gets fired whenever a communication event occurs, and a state machine has to be implemented inside of the callback.

I will end up implementing a scheduler state machine, so that the I2C master (the blue rectangle in the diagram above) will talk to I2C slaves (yellow rectangles) in a round-robin fashion. The purpose of these inter-module messages is to propagate state between the modules.

This will result in a very clear programming model in which the scheduler will sync the state of the modules in the background all the time, and the rest of the application logic of the master will be able to deal with the various module-specific data structures as if they were local.

I recently hit a related problem that I was unable to resolve, so in my true style, I summoned Santiago. The problem was that communication did not resume between the halves when I disconnected then reconnected them, even despite using async I2C calls. Santiago looked into the issue and concluded that the KSDK I2C driver is not very robust.

As it turns out, I2C drivers typically assume that I2C devices don’t get hot plugged, but are permanently soldered onto a PCB. Obviously, our situation is different, which calls for a more robust I2C driver on which Santiago is working right now.

PCB redesign

In our previous update, we told you that the UHK prototype has failed the EMC test and that I will find a professional PCB designer who (unlike me) does know what he’s doing.

I’m happy to introduce István Pánti, PCB designer extraordinaire!

István Pánti

István has been using Altium Designer over the years, a commercial PCB designer application which happens to be the number one industry standard worldwide. Luckily, he was willing, and even excited to learn KiCad, and according to his opinion it’s a surprisingly powerful tool for a Free Software package.

Then he cleaned up all of my traces and most components of the right UHK board, and started to reroute the tracks, beginning with the D+, D- differential pairs of USB, which are supposed to be the most problematic according to the EMC test measurements. His design turned out to be a lot cleaner than mine.

The redesigned right side PCB

The redesigned right side PCB

Routing PCBs is not black magic, but it may seem like it to the outsider, especially when dealing with EMC issues. There are a lot of layout rules to follow. Lucky for us, István has routed his fair share of PCBs before, including a USB hub, and read plenty of USB PCB design guidelines which now he puts to good use.

He’s been making great progress recently, and the end of the redesign is near. You can see his progress on GitHub.

I asked him to also create a 4 layer version of the PCBs after he finishes with the 2 layer version. Then we’ll prototype both versions and put them to the test. The 4 layer PCB should perform significantly better in the EMC department, but we’ll only pick it if necessary because it’s also significantly more expensive. This way, we can progress as quickly as possible.

Manufacturing progress

A short overview:

  • 2,000 LED displays are being manufactured.
  • 16,000 steel guides are being manufactured.
  • 4,000 magnet counterparts are being manufactured.
  • 2,000 FFC cables are being manufactured.
  • We will order 10,000 pogo pins, 126,000 keyswitches, and 126,000 keycaps in a few days.
  • 140,000 screws are on their way to us.

Lots of stuff are about to flow in pretty soon. Expect pictures of big boxes filled with goodies!

Thank you for reading the February installment of UHKzine. Talk to you on 2017-03-16!

2017 Jan 20

The first sample batch and EMC test

By | 2017-01-20T11:51:25+00:00 2017-01-20 11:44|manufacturing, news, prototype, tech talk|26 Comments

Happy New Year, everybody! This is the most recent installment of UHKzine – your authentic, monthly news source on all things UHK. In this update, there’s good news (production is moving along nicely), bad news (we need to delay delivery by two months to April 2017 in order to fix electrical noise so the UHK can pass FCC and CE certification), and more good news (we’re already vetting some great candidates to fix our PCB design in order to reduce the electrical noise).

The first sample PCB batch

We visited our PCBA contract manufacturer to prepare for mass production. They wanted to assemble five boards, so that we can get a good grip on the process, create jigs, and optimize for manufacturing as much as possible.

First, we figured out how to solder the switches and plates to the board in the most productive manner.

After discussing the surface mount part, we talked about through hole assembly. The panels will go into the following jig.

And the jig will go into the selective wave soldering machine, soldering the leads of through-hole components, mostly the keyswitches.

Some time after the meeting, they sent us a couple of pictures of the assembly process.

UHK panel in the pick and place machine

SMT-assembled panel

Soldering the switches

After finishing with the first sample batch, our contractor has followed up with some suggestions to further improve the PCB design for manufacturing. These were very minor improvements. Things are looking good in this department.

New case and plate samples

We’ve got a couple of new case and plate samples from our contractor.

Bottom case parts and plates

Top and bottom case parts and plates

The new plates are extremely accurate and fully ready for production. The cases are close to perfect, but still have some sink marks.

Top sink marks

Side sink marks

We’re about to use the mold with a more capable injection molding machine, which may make these sink marks disappear. If not, we’ll modify the mold further.

Parts are flowing in

We’re in the process of ordering every part from all around the world. Some recent ones:

Threaded inserts

Dowel pins for the male guides

USB velcro ties

We’ll be keeping you posted on the new items as they arrive.

Measure the force, Luke

The splitting / merging of the keyboard halves is a central part of the UHK user experience. This experience is very much dependent on the force the magnets exert. Although we have an intuitive feeling regarding the optimal amount force, being engineers, we want to be able to measure it, and make sure that it’s consistent across the keyboard halves, and across a keyboard half and add-on module. This has justified having a force gauge.

The measurements will give us a good idea about the strength of the magnets and how to choose the material of the magnets’ counterparts. We’re only a couple of days away from starting the production of the counterparts, and ordering the magnets.

EMC testing

EMC stands for electromagnetic compatibility, and such tests basically make sure that electronic devices do not interfere with each other. Because, believe it or not, people expect their phones to work when the microwave is on. You get the idea.

The UHK is no microwave, but in order to be allowed to be sold worldwide, we have to stick FCC and CE logos onto its back. And in order to be entitled to use these logos, the UHK must pass standard EMC tests.

This made us visit the EMC lab of T-Network to measure the electromagnetic emission of the latest UHK prototype. T-Network is a logical first step because their measurements are fairly affordable unlike the final measurements and certification at TÜV which is an order of magnitude more expensive. We better get this right because if not, we’ll have to pay big bucks to TÜV upon every subsequent try.

After walking into their building, making a few turns, and finding the right door of the long corridor, it wasn’t hard to notice that we arrived to the right place.

When opening the inner door of the lab, the SAR, or semianechoic room gets revealed. This is where the actual measurements take place.

In this setup, the UHK is plugged into a laptop and sits on a table, measured by the scary bigass antenna in the corner. Let’s take a closer look at it.

On this image, the antenna is oriented horizontally, and it stands in its lowest position, but it can rise way, way up.

During a measurement session, the antenna rises 4 meters upwards, then rotates its head vertically, and also does measurements that way. The result of the measurement is a graph.

This one has failed

The goal is to stay below the red line which we only achieved once out of 15 measurements: when the UHK was powered from a USB power bank, and hence it only received power and USB communication was inactive.

Success!

So according to the measurements, we have a good reason to believe that the USB circuitry of the PCB is not routed optimally. Even though I couldn’t foresee this, it’s not all that surprising because I routed the PCB using some external help, and I’m not an electrical engineer.

I’ve been told that failing the first test is pretty usual, and we shouldn’t be overly worried. In any case, it’s apparent that the time has come for me to resign as a self-taught PCB designer, and hand over the redesign of the PCB to a professional. As a matter of fact, I may have already found the right person. More on him in the next update.

As a last word of this section, I’d like to sincerely thank Robi for helping so much in the lab. His help was critical to figure out the exact problem.

Introducing our new contributor

Free and Open Source software is known for attracting numerous contributions, and we’ve been fortunate enough to receive our fair share. Which brings me to Gergely, who is the king of the hill when it comes to keyboard firmwares.

My name is Gergely Nagy (or algernon, for those who don't speak Hungarian), and I'm a jack-of-all-trades kind of free software zealot. I first came across the UHK in late 2014 when I was looking for a new keyboard. Since that time, I ended up contributing to QMK (the firmware that powers my current keyboard), KeyboardioFirmware (which will power my next keyboard), and I couldn't help but contribute to UHK's firmware too, which will power my mother's next keyboard. I may have developed a thing for keyboard firmware, much to my wife's regret. My current focus is parsing the config sent by Agent, and teaching the firmware to apply that at run-time. …and whatever else I can find the time for.

To this day, Gergely has been working on three entirely different keyboard firmwares, which unquestionably makes him one of the most knowledgeable contributors we can ever wish for. He’s been hard at work with the UHK firmware, and ended up implementing loads of features, including mouse keys and, most importantly, a significant chunk of the configuration parser. And it looks like he still hasn’t had enough!

Our deepest gratitude, and a UHK with all the bells and whistles goes to Gergely!

At the same time, Jozsi was working on Agent, making it able to transfer the selected layer to the UHK via USB. Seeing the configuration getting effortlessly updated in a blink of an eye via USB is magical. It’s very nice that all of our hard work pays off.

Expected delivery schedule

We keep making rapid progress and most things proceed according to our schedule, but not everything. The EMC issue is something we couldn’t foresee, and the PCB redesign will affect our delivery schedule.

We’ll try to reduce the delay as much as possible. Recently, I’ve made contact with expert PCB designers to resolve these issues as quickly as possible. I’ll meet all of them within days, and wrap this up as quickly as we can.

According to the above, we are moving the release schedule of the UHK and palm rest to the end of April. We wish we could do it sooner, but as a startup, we are destined to go through these hoops, and learn things the hard way. After releasing the first UHK model, creating further products is going to be so much easier!

As always, we will be keeping you updated on a monthly basis in our newsletter/blog, and on a weekly basis on social media. Should you have any questions, you’re always welcome to reach us.

Thank you for your continued support, and we’re excited to talk to you on 2017-02-16.