Michael Buffington

The Manta Ray

Friday, September 14 2012

I have an obsession with input devices. This obsession is the driven by the idea that my fingers, arms, or hands will just stop working someday. It’s a totally rational fear considering that those body parts are essential for putting food on the table.

So when I see different kinds of keyboards or mice, I want them.

I want them badly enough that if I can’t have them, I make them.

Here’s an example of a work in progress that I call the Manta Ray.

It’s built with balsa and bass wood, a bunch of switches, a Blackberry trackball, a nearly microscopic joystick, and a Teensy 2.0.

There are a total of nine micro switches. The three visible on the top are intended to be used as “modifiers”. The idea, at least for now, is to use them as CTRL, ALT/OPTION, and COMMAND (I’m an OS X user, though I guess COMMAND would map to some Windows based key as well). They’re set close enough together so that I can press more than one at a time with just my thumb.

The six bottom switches are for chording. For chording, I looked at rolling my own system, a library called Chordite, and GKOS. I used GKOS in the end mostly because it just seemed to “stick”. I’m at the point now where I don’t need to lookup the chord for at least the entire alphabet, as well as a lot of punctuation. I’m not yet fast enough to have it replace a normal qwerty style keyboard but I’m getting there.

The joystick on the right is currently working as a mouse. Pressing in on the stick works for the left mouse click. At the moment, the joystick is so sensitive that mouse clicks are sloppy. It’s difficult to click without moving the mouse cursor. It’s likely that I’ll add a chord to work as a mouse click.

I just added the Blackberry trackball the other night and haven’t mapped it to any inputs yet. It’s likely that it’ll become the horizontal and vertical mouse scroll. I can also use it as an indicator since it has 4 programmable LEDs beneath. It’s also a button - I currently have it working as a left mouse click.

Eventually I’ll fill in all the gaps, making The Manta Ray look a lot more like a game controller than a wooden skeleton. Working with balsa and bass word has been great so far. The feel of the device is unique. It’s light, comfortable, and it’s strong. When it’s been fully fleshed out and carved/sanded to fit my hands more I think it’s going to work really well.