Inputs Of Interest: The Infogrip BAT Chording Keyboard

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I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that by researching weird and interesting keyboards, I would uncover more weird and interesting keyboards. This is the BAT personal keyboard by Infogrip, and it’s something I came across while researching the DataHand keyboard and mentally filed away as something cool to look into.

When I came across a used BAT for a reasonable price, I snagged it, even though it didn’t come with any of the manuals or software, not even a cord. Like I said, reasonable price. I looked these keyboards up and found out that you can buy them new for a lot more than what I paid.

My gently used BAT in all its angular glory.
BAT lowercase alpha
The lowercase letter chords use either the middle thumb key or no thumb key. Image via Infogrip

So what is this thing? It’s a chording keyboard that’s meant to be used a standard PC input device by anyone who either can’t use a regular keyboard or has a need for speed. Years of research went into the BAT’s chording scheme, which was developed in conjunction with NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

Instead of stretching your fingers all over a regular keyboard, poking keys one at a time to spell out words, you press combinations of keys simultaneously, like playing chords on a piano.

You’re meant to use your thumb for the red, grey, and blue keys, and lay the other four on the rest of the keys. All of the alphabet keys are chorded with or without the gray thumb key, and all the number, symbol, and modifier keys are accessed through the red and blue layers.

Why would you want one of these? Well, given enough time to learn the chords, you can do anything a standard 104+ keyboard can do with only seven keys. You would never need to look down, not even for those weird seldom-used keys, and the only finger that ever travels is your thumb. All of this reduced hand/finger/wrist travel is going to be easier on the body.

BAT CAD
The BAT lets you CAD like a madlad. Via Bill Buxton

The BAT is also part programmable macro pad, and from what I can gather, the main selling point was that you could quickly input shortcuts in CAD programs and the like, because you could keep one hand on the mouse.

The BAT came in both left- and right-handed versions that can be used either alone or together. Imagine how fast you could type if you chorded everything and split the typing duties between both hands! The only trouble is learning all those different finger combinations, although they say it doesn’t take that long.

So why is it called the BAT? Legend has it that it’s because company started out in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but also because a pair of BATs sitting next to each other resembles a bat (PDF).

Connector Inspector

This version of the BAT seems to be from the middle of the availability timeline — the late 1990s. It has an AT port and 5-pin mini DIN, which I originally mistook for PS/2 from the seller’s pictures. Whoops!

BAT connectors
At least all three of the cords are beige.

The first thing I did was email the company about a replacement cord. I thought these keyboards were still being made, because they have new ones that look very much like this one, but come in black and use USB. I got an email back from a rep who told me Infogrip went out of business, and that their company is selling off the new old stock until it runs out.

I started my initial cord searches with the mini DIN side, and my thinking was simply that it’s newer technology. Yes, but it turns out that mini DIN cords are kind of uncommon and difficult to find — at least cords that terminate in something I can use on the other end.

The BAT started out with an RS-232 serial port, then moved to this AT/5-pin mini DIN version that I have, and then to USB-Boxy sometime in the early 2000s. I gave up on searching for a mini DIN when I found a cheap AT to PS/2 converter and equally inexpensive PS/2 cable to use with one of those PS/2 to USB cables that you couldn’t swing a ball mouse without hitting in the early 2000s. It seems to work, at least partially. My system recognizes it and declares it ready to use. I can get all the LEDs to light up, but none of the chords I try will produce output in any text editor I’ve tried. I might have better luck if I can find an AT to PS/2 cord.

Tour and Teardown

It’s difficult to give a fair assessment about a device without using it for a while. So far, I haven’t been able to do that. But outwardly, the BAT feels like it was designed for the best possible user experience.

BAT red black springs deskthority 1
The BAT’s keys take very little actuating force because of the springs. Image via Deskthority

The point of a keyboard like this is that you should never have to look down at your hand(s). To help with that, both of the red and blue thumb keys have homing bumps, and the gray one doesn’t.

All the keycaps seem to be mounted backwards, as in 180° from normal — and based on the pictures I’ve found, this is how Infogrip intended them to be. This way, the keys have a really low profile and are easier to actuate. The pinky key is taller than the rest to account for how short and weak pinkies tend to be. And underneath each keycap, there are three layers of 1/8″ thick foam to absorb the shock of typing.

The BAT’s keyswitches are Cherry MX blacks that have been modified with exceptionally light springs that make them take even less force to actuate than reds. I can’t fathom how they could have made this keyboard any easier or more comfortable to type on, unless maybe the wrist rest was gel instead of foam, or it had adjustable tenting to change the typing angle.

I don’t understand why it has a coin cell, especially considering this troubleshooting blog post from Infogrip that suggests removing the battery altogether because “you don’t need it and it can cause problems”. Does anyone know or care to speculate? I did try this, along with the hard reset sequence, but it still behaves the same way.

Will This Become My New Favorite Input Device?

I’m going to try to get this keyboard to work as it’s supposed to. But if that doesn’t happen, I think it would make a fantastic macro pad, especially if I come up with my own scheme for chorded shortcuts. And there’s plenty of room in the case to design a board that fits the keyswitch footprint.

Since my hand is small, there might be enough room for a trackball just below the thumb keys, and some mouse buttons and a scroll wheel under the other keys. I’m in the middle of designing a 5-key macro pad that will sit right in front of my trackball mouse, but the idea of combining a trackball mouse and a macro pad into a track-ro is tempting. We’ll see how it goes.

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