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Keyboard enthusiasts seem to click over love of their custom devices

Michael Dobuski/ABC News

(NEW YORK) — The doorbell at 224 West 4th Street in Manhattan’s West Village doesn’t work, which is why Will Fann is leaving a note on the door. That note is one of the only handwritten things at the Fat Cat Fab Lab on a recent Saturday, because the space is hosting a gathering of computer keyboard enthusiasts.

Fann tells ABC Audio that meetups like this are usually pretty informal.

“It’s usually just bring your keyboard – or just show up – talk to other people about, like, what you’re doing, what you’re planning to build, what you have built [and] show off whatever keyboard you want to show off,” he said.

The event is hosted by Fann, alongside one of the Lab’s board members, Mars Kennedy, who said the mechanical keyboard community is sizable.

“The first time I ran this meetup, I actually had to cap attendance because we just can’t fit that many people in this space,” said Kennedy.

For this meet, keyboard enthusiasts congregate under a multicolored lighting fixture styled to look like an alien spacecraft. Huddled around wooden tables, attendees browse a diverse selection of customized keyboards. Notecards are perched above each one, with words like “Royal Kludge,” “Kailh tactiles” and “float mount” detailing each board’s specifications (like any hobby, mechanical keyboard enthusiasm brings with it a fair amount of lingo).

Most modern keyboards, like the ones that come with laptops and desktop computers, are “membrane” keyboards. A large rubber pad sits under the entire keyboard, and pressing each key into that “membrane” completes an electrical circuit. Doing so sends a message to the computer that a keystroke is happening.

The boards on display at this meetup are “mechanical” keyboards, which complete the same electrical circuit, but instead of using a rubber membrane, each key uses individual “switches.” Subtle differences in those mechanical components can vastly impact the typing experience.

“They’re little plastic cubes with a cross-shaped stem on it,” said John Poblador, a software consultant who brought two keyboards to the meet. “And the internals of the cross-shaped stem is actually what determines the feel.”

Poblador also said different switches make different sounds. But that’s just the start of what keyboard customizers can get up to.

One of the boards on display is pink and shaped like a cat’s head, while another sports a black and gray color scheme, with keys styled to look like skulls. Another purple and white board features keys split into two distinct clusters: what’s known as an “Alice” layout. There’s even a board dedicated to coffee – the Arabic lettering a reference to arabica coffee beans.

Not all keyboards are for typing, either. Gordon Biggs showed off his homemade keypad, which he says has a WiFi chip inside.

“Various keys do different sort of home automation things,” he said, like “turning on and off lights, that kind of thing.”

Biggs says he first became interested in mechanical keyboards in 2019. But his interest really took off as pandemic lockdowns set in the following year.

“I can build this keyboard, and that’s a, like, nice tactile thing that I can control in this moment,” he says. “Then also finding this community of other keyboard enthusiasts where we could all kind of connect online when we were all stuck at home, and that was also very nice.”

It’s a similar story for several keyboard enthusiasts at the meet.

“I started kind of during the COVID era, so 2020. And that’s when the hobby boomed,” says Poblador. “Everyone’s at home or working from home and they want to upgrade their office set up and all that stuff… everyone is obsessed with standing desks and Herman Miller chairs, whatever. Well, what about this thing that you were literally touching for, let’s say, eight hours a day?”

But it’s not all about ergonomics, said Biggs.

“I think you have people coming at it from like a vintage computing aspect,” he said. “Where it’s like, ‘this is a modern keyboard switch that mimics the feel of or sound or whatever of an old keyboard from the ’80s.'”

In fact, analog tech appears to be having a moment. VHS cassettes, for example, are fetching big money at auction, with a collector shelling out $75,000 for a near-mint tape of “Back to the Future” last year. Vinyl records, led by Taylor Swift’s “Midnights,” accounted for 43% of all album sales last year, outselling CDs for the second year in a row, according to Luminate.

Biggs said, for him, mechanical keyboards are more about the thrill of tinkering with a machine, mixing style and functionality to create something unique.

“I think it’s about sort of like, being able to get a tool that works really well for you,” he said.

All told, about 40 people showed up to the meet – a good turnout, according to the organizers. This particular event was considered a “mini-meet.” Biggs is in charge of organizing larger gatherings. For his next meetup, in April, he’s expecting about 150 people to attend.

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