If there's one issue with the gorgeous COOL LEAF keyboard from Minebea, it's the less-than-satisfying feel of the touch panel keying action. When not in use, the equally good-looking Levitatr Bluetooth keyboard has a similarly flat upper surface but when activated the chiclet keys rise up and illuminate to offer some gratifying tactile typing.
Designer James Stumpf says that the driving force behind Levitatr's creation was frustration at the number of typing errors made when using an iPad's virtual keyboard. To protect the keys during transit and to add a wow factor to an otherwise somewhat boring device, the keys of his wireless Levitatr peripheral elevate from within the body of the keyboard when activated by pressing a mechanical button to the left.
"We were faced with many challenges when engineering the Levitatr keyboard," Stumpf told Gizmag. "One of the most difficult features to engineer was the lifting mechanism for the keys. It had to be strong, it had to support the keys evenly, it had to be precise as the keys only raise up about 2.2mm, and the entire mechanism needed to fit within a 6mm space to achieve the outer dimension of 9.8mm."
The actual details of how the lifting mechanism works are, for the time being, being kept close to his chest.
LED lighting illuminates the QWERTY, AZERTY or QWERTZ layout key lettering when the keying area is raised. The key top aspect of the project is still under development, with two designs currently under consideration. The first allows LED light to pass through laser cut dots to make up each letter and the other makes use of a "clear key top and screen prints it from the underside black with small dots left unprinted for key lettering."
Electrical Bluetooth connectivity and power buttons are positioned top right and there are also five programmable hot keys. At the end of the typing session, the keys can be lowered almost flush with the upper surface.
Originally, Levitatr was some 12.5mm (0.49-inch) thick - which is still a might thinner than Jorno's folding keyboard or the rather chunky itablet Thumb Keyboard - but Stumpf abandoned the four replaceable AAA-sized batteries as a power source in favor of a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery - which then allowed the chassis to be slimmed down to its current dimensions of the 11.16 x 5.16 x 0.38-inches (283 x 131 x 9.8 mm). He told us that "a rough estimate for battery use is 25 hours of constant use and 15 days of standby between charges."
Early designs also featured an injection-molded polycarbonate plastic chassis but when quotes were received for the bezel machining, it was found that the cost of having the entire chassis machined from aluminum was actually less. It also reduced the number of chassis parts from six (with six screws) down to three (with four screws). The chiclet-style keys, upper face and bottom cover, though, are made from polycarbonate plastic.
There's a rubberized, hinged kickstand underneath Levitatr that's kept in place by magnets when not in use, and which can either be used to prop up the paired smartphone or tablet for a 20 or 30 degree viewing angle or to provide a more ergonomic typing tilt for the keyboard itself.
When asked about including a comfortable keying angle for the unit, Stumpf told us: "I hate to say 'we are still working on that', but we are still working on a way to create a slant for ergonomics and we are tossing around a lift button similar to the key elevation button that would automatically prop the keyboard up in the rear."
Levitatr is currently a few weeks away from securing Kickstarter funding and Stumpf is hopeful of having retail units available by January/February next year, at an estimated price of US$99. He says that due to very healthy interest from abroad, he plans to "retail the Levitatr internationally as soon as possible."
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