June 1, 2006

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The keyboard is mightier
Never forget the button for “strafe” again
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

For the hardcore gamer, consoles — PlayStation, XBOX — will never be sufficient. Why?

Not enough buttons.

Oh, sure, they cram analog joysticks and D-pads and triggers onto today’s monstrous game controllers, but there’s only so much you can squeeze on there. Eventually you end up with something so unwieldy that you have to set it down on a desk.

Kind of like a keyboard. Which is the default controller for many computer games. It’s hardly ideal; for one thing, it’s labeled wrong. Need to switch your shotgun for a chainsaw? Quick, hit, uh ... F2? Wait, is it Ctrl+5? Arrgh, beast attack!

There are, of course, solutions. The cheapest is to stick labels on all your keys. That assumes you know all the keyboard shortcuts and have both legible small handwriting and lots of patience.

Yeah. We’re talking about gamers here. But there are alternatives.

ZBoard Gaming Keyboard
$49.99 + $19.99 and up for each keyset
www.zboard.com

“I got a keyboard with my e-Machine!” you cry. “What’s this 50 bucks fer a new keyboard?”
You’re not a hardcore gamer. You have an e-Machine. Turn the page.

What you get for $50 is the ZBoard base unit, which includes multimedia controls, hot keys and two USB ports, and two keysets that snap into place. One is a standard Windows keyset, with many keys labeled with their most common functions. The S key, for example, says “Save” and has a cute little floppy disk icon on it. The other keyset is for generic gaming. The regular QWERTY layout is shifted to the right, so you can still type your letters to Grandma, and a specialized keypad takes up residence on the left. Common functions like “Fire” and “Jump” are preconfigured.

For popular games, there are customized keysets available. Not only are they custom-configured with labels for all the wacky stunts your game character/vehicle/entity can do, they feature snazzy artwork to get you in the mood. Each one can still function as a regular keyboard in between caffeine-fueled gaming sessions. The company also offers keysets for business applications like Photoshop and Microsoft Office, but who are they kidding?

If snapping in different modules seems low-tech, you’re right. Mustn’t there be a better way?

Optimus Keyboard
$200 to $300, someday
www.artlebedev.com/portfolio/optimus

Oh man, is this sweet. This is awesome. This is so ultimately cool, it’s a given that it’s nowhere near its release date and reading the following paragraphs will just frustrate you.

What makes Optimus so wicked? Each key is a display. Depending upon what application you’re using the labels on the keys change. Hook it up to a Mac, you have that weird flower key. Connect to a Windows PC, there’s your precious Windows button. Hit Caps Lock and all the lowercase letters turn uppercase. You can even assign icons to ten hotkeys on the left, making them open whatever you want.

Made by a Russian design firm, Optimus will be open source, so anyone can design a new key layout. The keys use organic LEDs, which are brighter and use less power than LCD screens. The price estimate is high, yeah, but awesomeness isn’t free. It might be seen by the end of 2006, but if it’s not, a new Cold War might be necessary. Pray for humanity.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at hippoflea.com

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