Thoughts, Experiments & Tutorials

Natural Keyboard

October 08, 2012

For Digital Fabrication with Danny Rozin, our assignment was to create something using the laser cutter. I chose to create a computer keyboard made of wood and moss. I was passionate about creating this because I feel the aesthetic of modern technological objects are cold and lifeless. Surrounded with tech gadgets made of glass, metals, and plastics – I believe that as a society – we are constantly removing ourselves from nature and have drawn ourselves into a motif of objects that are visually very clean, but also visually bland and tactilely inept. What if our technology lived and breathed? If it required us to water it at night in order to allow it to bloom? If it were both visually and tactilely stimulating would user interactions change and would their relationship toward the object change?

To begin I went back to a CAD drawing of a Apple wireless keyboard that I made last week. I used this as my base model and found a keyboard that I could use to disassemble and study. Stripped from it’s aluminum body – the Apple keyboard isn’t composed of many parts – a circuit connected to a bluetooth and ASCII converter chip via a ribbon cable (see this site for images: like here). With these raw components I tried several wood mechanisms to make the keys. The Apple keys are made via injection molding and have a fairly intricate three part plastic mechanism that keeps the keys up and distributes the pressure when keys are pressed. After several attempts to try and recreate something similar in wood – I settled on a simpler approach where the key sits snug in it’s frame and has a thin wood lip glued to it’s back to allow the key to not fall out of the frame. The circuit had rubber springs and I kept these in order to allow the key to pop up when no pressure is applied (on several keys I had to add some more support – e.g. the space key and shift keys).

I assembled my file for laser cutting to allow all the pieces to be cut with only two sheets of wood. Once cut – I took the top part of the frame which was made of plywood and soaked the top of it in hot water until it was bendable. This was my first attempt at wood bending, but it came out beautifully (probably due to the thinness of my wood 1/32″). Above you can find a photo of the frame bending and holding in place with clamps (pressed against the original aluminum frame) and what it looked like when it came out of the mold. I let the mold sit for about 8 hours before removing it. Now that I had all the components it was a mater of re-soldering the chip back into a usable circuit and placing moss on the frame.

The apple chip came with designated red (power) and black (ground) wires. I used a plastic tube as a container for this chip and the batteries. I created a battery holder within the tube using a washer and a piece of rubber (to ensure power and ground are separated). I then strung copper tap along the tube to meet two wires that I could solder to the chip (power and ground respectively). At each step I checked to ensure the connection was solid with a multimeter and I was pleased it created a reliable connection. I originally wanted to use the following recipe to paint a coat of moss on the frame that would be growable. Unfortunately growable moss is quite hard to find in NYC and due to time constraints I moved forward with fake moss to demonstrate the concept.

Overall I was very pleased with the result. Visually I think it stands out from the typically technology products you tend see. The textures are also very enjoyable to feel and touch and using it as a keyboard is a sensual experience for the hands. The contrast between something so commonly seen as unnatural – with materials that are natural – offers an interesting contrast. In the future I’d like to continue merging digital fabrication with natural materials to create pieces that are contradicting to peoples preconceived perceptions and that are visually beautiful, tactilely interesting, while retaining the functionality we expect from our modern world.

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