Keyboard whose keys are raised in proportion to their frequency of use

Mike Kneupfel, a student at NYU's Interactive Technology Program, made a 3D model showing the keys he presses most frequently when typing, composed of raised keys on a keyboard. It's a fun and eye-catching way of visualizing data by using the thing whose data you're analyzing.
Conclusions - This was just a first go at trying to create a data driven 3d sculpture. I wound up scaling the keys a little bit too much in the vertical direction. The weight of the tall keys caused the towers to tilt at an angle. I plan on showing this prototype to a few people that will hopefully give me more ideas for new data sets to look at. I want to try and use the CNC for future data driven sculptures. I also want to try and include color into the sculpture somehow.
Keyboard Frequency Sculpture (via Neatorama)


  1. This is great, it makes the design philosophy of the qwerty keyboard instantly understandable. Look at the towering areas around the pinky finger, compared with the valley of the index fingers.

    On the other hand, looking at it you can see that it could be worse. The hardest keys to hit are the non-home-row pinky finger buttons, which are thankfully reserved for the Q, Z, P and >, luckily all very flat on that model.

    I do notice though…. the space, return and shifts are completely flat? This shows that this model was not looking at which keys people actually use when typing on a keyboard. Instead he was just using the letter-frequencies in text to guide his design. In reality, of course, we hit the space between every word, so it should be pretty high — probably one of the highest towers on the board.

    1. Especially when one consider that it was originally designed to slow down typing. Yep, it was specifically laid out so that the hammers of a typewriter would have time to return to its starting position before the next letter was entered. And thanks to its success, and that computer interfaces grew out of teletypes (a kind of typewriter for telegraphs) we still have it around today.

      1. You say that like it’s an established fact and not a popular rumor (the intent-to-slow-down part)…

        The guy who popularized the QWERTY layout actually did it with letter frequency in mind. Yes, typewriter mechanics probably had something to do with it: if two letters that follow each other are more likely to be located on opposite sides of the keyboard, the chance of the hammers getting stuck is obviously lower. But waiting until the hammers return to their original position? Not realistic if you want to maintain any speed at all, not even in the early typewriter days.

        1. Ok, so hammer returning may have been a bit much. But it clearly was about having the hammer retreat enough that it was not in the path of the next letter being entered.

    2. Yes, should have read “letters,” not “keys.” My guess is that the space bar and shift would have been so tall as to ruin the sculptural quality of the piece as well as any sense of proportion among letters. (Stand next to John Holmes and you’re gonna feel small, even if you’re the “E” in the circlejerk.)

  2. Wouldn’t “Keyboard the keys of which are raised…” be correct? I ask because english is not my native language, and “whose” usually refers to a person (or cat).

    Apart from that: Quite fascinating!

  3. It would be interesting to apply this concept to landscapes and places people walk. Take an old stairway some time, and you can see very distinctive wear patterns on the hand rail and floor precisely where people place their hands and step as they ascend or descend.

    Another idea would be to print a city in 3D with roads raised based on traffic.

  4. More data sets?

    Pollution levels, cancer, those polls of the best places to live, calorie counts of foods, the most used crosswalks, traffic density, education levels, income sources, drug use, homeopathic remedy use …

  5. I think it activates the left pinky too often. Between A strokes and trips down to shift and Ctrl, mine’s always worn out after a long day of programming.

  6. Obviously not a gamer. The WASD keys are all way too low. They should make everything else tiny in comparison. :D

    1. I read about at least one big name in FPS gaming that preferred the esdf area, as it allowed the qazwx to be used to keep various actions within easy reach.

  7. its incorrect, the backspace key on my keyboard would be taller than any other key… i can’t type

  8. A couple of thoughts:

    Some of the most common things I type are my passwords. Unless this was explicitly sampled from actual text like emails and documents, this type of keyscape might be a security vulnerability out of a spy movie.

    Looking at my hands as I rest on the home row (though i know I shouldn’t), a folk origin for the Qwerty key layout suggests itself. All of the keys that I hit with pinky, ring and middle fingers are hidden. I can only see the keys immediately around my index fingers. If the hidden keys are the most often used, it’s easier to memorize their locations, while the less frequently used center ones can be seen at a glance until you can memorize them too.

    I tried using Dvorak for a bit and didn’t find it significantly better, but I never became fluent in it.

    1. After a couple of years of using a Dvorak layout I can’t speak more highly of it. I can type far longer without any of the strain I fest when typing on a Qwerty keyboard. I actually find the motion of the alternation of hands and focus on keeping most of the typing on the home row very pleasant.

      People who are looking for a more ergonomic layout that retains some of the most used keys in Qwerty (x,c,v for example) may want to look into Colemak as well. Those who like it are, well, let’s just say they are very enthusiastic about it.

  9. Ok, so hammer returning may have been a bit much. But it clearly was about having the hammer retreat enough that it was not in the path of the next letter being entered.

    Well, not really. The problem is only with letters that the hammers are mechanically next to each other. You want to make sure that letters that commonly go together don’t have their hammers next to each other.. and the hammers correspond to a large extent with where the keys are on the keyboard.

    Even with that restriction in place, the keyboard could likely have been optimized better – but QWERTY was definitely not made to suck.

    The other thing is that optimization is more complicated than it might first appear. It’s not just about putting the most frequent letters together, it would involve discovering how well people can chain keys together from certain relationships and the frequency of combinations. For example, if “ER” is common, you probably don’t want E and R on the same finger even if frequency might dictate they both go to a strong finger – it’s clearly faster to hit two subsequent characters with different fingers.

    1. Agreed on the optimization issues. I’d also like to add internationalization. As it is, I’m having a hard enough time switching between layouts for different European languages (so I can easily type accented characters and umlauts), even though they are only slightly different. E.g. German is QWERTZ, French is AZERTY and Canadian French has the accented letters, symbols and numbers in different places than standard French. Now imagine if layouts were systematically organized for each language instead of just moving a couple of frequently-used letters around. There’s something to be said for quasi standards…

      1. There is a keyboard layout known as US-international. Basically a US keyboard with a altgr key and such.

  10. I’d like to see a keyboard that adjusted the height of the keys in realtime. Very rapidly, the keys that one hit most frequently would become harder to use, and would thus drop in frequency. Soon, one would be finger-surfing the chaotic wave of the alphanumeric equivalent of a 3D equalizer.

    Eventually a key hits the ceiling and gets permanently stuck. After that, it’s a contest between the structural strength of the ceiling sheetrock, the keyboard and your desk.

  11. You can actually see on my work keyboard (which I’ve had for 3 years) what key I use more often than others. Or maybe just which keys I’m hitting harder than others.

    The “N”, “M”, and “H” buttons are pretty much gone which makes me think I just have an insanely strong pointer finger on my right hand.

    picture of the keyboard in question:

  12. I’d be willing to get this guy didn’t use actual usage data of his particular keyboard, but instead used generic stats on the frequency of occurrence of each letter in the English language.

    Either that or this guy does a ton more typing of long documents than web browsing, gaming or other activities. Because many of those other activities involve frequently repeated use of particular letters.

  13. Anyone who’s ever seen a typesetter’s tray (graphic arts class in HS, 1974) could have told him the frequency of letter usage.

  14. The artist should make the key heights proportional to the logarithm of letter frequency, and show us the Dvorak and Colemak versions.

    Better yet, use heat maps.

  15. I’m assuming that model is based on a real keyboard – anyone know what it is? ’cause I could really go for one like that…

  16. Visualized data is tantamount to porn, IMHO. This is pretty cool…my highest key would be “…..”

    1. well played, Cowicide, but points off for revealing the punchline in your post.

      as everyone else pointed out: the space, return, f5, backspace/delete, control/command, and shift would tower over ‘E’ if the dipshit who sculpted this was accurate/honest.

  17. This is quite amazing! I have to write in English sometimes and Thai some other times. So I had to use these blue stickers to stick onto the keys so I can write in both scripts (the keyboard is a native English one). After about six months of solid use, some keys started to become unreadable. They were now just plain blue stickers – no more Latin or Thai glyphs. So these had to be removed, while the less frequently used keys are still carrying the blue stickers.

    The pattern is *exactly* the same as the one shown in the picture. Same keyboard too.

  18. Why wouldn’t he put the actual keys on top of the columns instead of ones that are ugly and hard to read?

  19. Some other commenters mention the Dvorak keyboard, so I’ll continue the trend. With the exception of the “U” key that seems to be hidden by the angle, this sculpture really is an inadvertent ad for the Dvorak layout. The tallest key-columns, are the home keys for Dvorak.
    Takes some getting used to, but a user will notice the lack of physical strain after just a few hours of getting used to the layout. Note: There will be increased mental strain until you develop muscle-memory. ( : D )

  20. This is letter frequency not key frequency, so a little misleading to represent on a keyboard. What would be interesting is TRUE key frequency, i imagine it would feature the spacebar, enter key etc on par with ‘e’ or ‘a’

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