Razer's new Optomechanical switch is possibly the most revolutionary thing we’ve seen in a desktop keyboard for years. The hybridized key switches gains the speed of a laser-based optical system while still maintaining the clicky, tactile feel of a mechanical key.
While we were blown away by the technology in our recent review of the Huntsman Elite, we wanted the full backstory of the how the Optomechanical switch came to be. We caught up with Razer's Hilmar Hahn, Associate Director of Core Peripheral Product Marketing, and VJin Cheng, Associate Manager of Product Marketing, to tell us everything about the Huntsman Elite and its revolutionary key switches.
Hahn, surprisingly, reveals that the Optomechanical switch has been subject to one of the longest product development cycles at Razer.
“We have actually had this [Optomechanical switch] on the roadmap for at least three years now, and having it on the roadmap usually means that we want to launch it within that year,” Hahn says. "Razer only launches product when we feel it's actually ready, so we pushed this back multiple times just to make sure that we get it right – And this maybe has been four years in the making in total.”
Hahn explains that before the Optomechanical switch even made it onto the roadmap, the peripherals team got together to outline specification documents that detail out what the product should be, what are the ideal features that must be in the product, what are some of the features that are ‘nice-to-haves.’ Only after all that has been done, does Razer officially put it on the roadmap for a specific year to release.
From there Razer started forming an engineering and industrial design team around the project. This core team consisted of product developers, industrial design, software developers, firmware programmers, plus mechanical and electrical engineers.
“All of these guys will then meet on a weekly basis and just share the updates of each part of the project as we go through handmade prototypes, first production samples and all these things, and then review sections all the time,” Hahn explains. “That's how it comes to life.”
The mechanical keyboard goes digital
The Optomechanical switch is pretty much the closest thing to a digital mechanical keyboard. The ‘Opto’ part of its name refers to the digital optical actuation of the keys, which is driven by a beam of light hitting a receiver every time you hit a key.
Mechanical keyboards normally use metal contacts as an actuation point at this juncture, but light travels at a 186,000 miles-per-second speed that is exponentially faster than an electric current.
Aside from giving users a much, much faster response rate, adding optical actuation also extends the durability of the Huntsman Elite keyboard.
“Mechanical switches degrade after a while – especially the conversion part which will actually affect the switch performance,” Cheng explains. “Maybe in your 20 million clicks for example, you’ll actually see a difference in terms of how the switch performs. But the Optomechanical light continues to be the same where you see the signal is always straight".
Of course, melding together a key switch that’s both optical and mechanical in nature raises some issues. For one thing, the entire bottom half of the key switch is basically hollow, except for a spring that’s only really there to reset the key after it bottoms out.
To support the mechanical half of the switch and give it more bite, the Razer peripheral team implemented a stabilizer bar.
“We just created the stabilizer bar to give users a consistent key press, because when you're gaming sometimes you're not looking at where your fingers are resting, so you may actually hit the side of the keycap and things like that,” Cheng reveals. “We designed this stabilizer bar to give that consistent key press on every click.”
Hahn also adds that it was only possible for the team to add the stabilizer bar to their Optomechanical switch because it's constructed with fewer mechanical parts. “It would be much harder to do a stabilizer bar on standard Razer mechanical keys because there are more individual moving parts and also the factory cost as well,” he says.
Another issue we have with the Huntsman Elite is that it requires two USB ports at all times to operate. However, Cheng explains it’s necessary because of just how much light the Huntsman needs to generate for both its optical switches as well as all of the keyboard’s RGB lighting.
“The keyboard actually takes up a lot of USB power because each of the 104 keys needs to be powered up to certain amount to fire across the [optical] signal,” Cheng says.
Cheng then tallies the RGB lighting points, "so we have 104 keys on the keyboard and then with the media keys there's 2 lighting points, one for the dial and one edge across all three of the media keys. Then 38 are lighting points around the keyboard itself to add an underglow and then another 24 points on the wrist rest as well, totaling up to 168.
There is a saving grace here, as Cheng and Hahn see the possibility of future accessories. The palm rest draws its power through pogo pins located on the bottom of the keyboard that support both power and data transfers.
“What we imagine is things like wireless charging through the pogo pins,” Hahn suggest. “You could even go as crazy as having some sort of heating or something in the wrist rest.
“There are all sorts of different ideas – maybe even cooling – who knows but they’re just thoughts right now,” he says. “We do work with technology partners to see what's possible and we're just at the start of it right now. So, if we're looking at this with a multi-year lifespan, we definitely want to support the ecosystem.”
Feeling it out
One of the most interesting aspects of Razer’s Optomechanical switch is that it melds together the best aspects of existing mechanical keyboards.
It literally combines the 45g actuation force of Cherry MX Reds mixed with the clicky feedback of Cherry MX Blue and Razer Green switches. Meanwhile, it also features a 3.5mm travel distance and 1.5mm actuation point that closely resembles that of Cherry MX Speed Silver.
“We looked at what was out there in the market competition-wise; what are the specs there, is there something that gamers tend to prefer a lot,” Hahn says. “Then we explored what was possible and wasn’t, where are the limitations, what can we combine, bring in. That's how we come up with the key feel.”
From there Cheng explains it was just the matter of testing – a lot of testing – to meld the two diverse parts of the Optomechanical switch together. With just the switch alone. that process included testing the feel and fine tuning it more than a dozen times over.
“Once the switch is done and mounted on the keyboard, we continue to do the testing in terms of the durability, the performance and strength,” Cheng says.
Hahn adds: “we even had a hundred million keystroke test, it takes months to run with a machine that can press every single key. Actually while testing, we had to change the motor out because it broke.”
Taking the next step
The Razer Huntsman and Huntsman Elite are far from one-off keyboards for Razer. Hahn and Cheng see the Optomechanical switch as the companies new premier switch for its flagship keyboards.
“You can see the innovation of where Razer was before this, we always have membrane and mechanical ,” Cheng says. “So, we actually created the Razer Mecha-Membrane, which is a step above membrane, and then now we have Opto-Mechanical, it's a step above mechanical as well.”
Hahn steps in to note that Cheng is speaking about the timeline starting in 2010 and “five years before that, we were doing a bunch of membrane-based gaming keyboards as well; Tarantula, Lycosa, Arctosa keyboards, DeathStalkers.”
“Those are all there, but that time just allowed us to get better and better at keyboards,” Hahn continues. “The BlackWidow mechanical keyboard is really where we took a huge step forward in terms of really starting to create our own implementations of keyboards, key feel and then really taking the next step into the components and not only the product itself.”
“Our whole 10 to 12 years of keyboards certainly play into this Optomechanical switch,” he says. “We didn't just do this from scratch.”
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