CES 2013: Hands-On with Art Lebedev's Optimus Popularis Keyboard

By Matthew Braga

The Russian design company's first keyboard had tiny displays in each key, but Art Lebedev is hoping to cut the cost on its new model by using one big display.

With the Optimus Maximus, Art Lebedev pitched us the crazy idea of putting tiny OLED displays a mere 10mm in size into each of its keyboard's 113 keys. But its successor, the Optimus Popularis, turns the entire keyboard into a display instead.

Deep in the annals of CES's South Hall we found the Russian design company demoing a pre-production model of its new Optimus Popularis keyboard, set to finally ship this May (delayed, again, from last summer). The keyboard serves a similar purpose as is predecessor, enabling, say, pro gamers and video production editors the ability to customize the icon and function of each of the keyboard's keys. The idea is that you no longer have to memorize the location of hotkeys and shortcuts as you would on a standard QWERTY keyboard, but can clearly see the function or purpose represented on the key itself. Pretty much the complete opposite of the blank Das Keyboards.

This time, however, Art Lebedev is ditching the individual OLED displays for one big 7" LCD (a TN panel with LED backlighting, if you're curious) that sits beneath the Popularis' 77 keys. That means each key has been designed to look more like a tiny window – a feat which also required Art Lebedev's engineers to create custom mechanical elements that sit around the edge of each key, as opposed to directly underneath. We don't know much about how this mechanism works, other than that it's "proprietary technology."

The bad news is that the display wasn't especially bright – at least, not when up against the floodlight conditions of the CES show floor. (The demo unit had sample configurations for Final Cut Pro and playing Half-Life 2, for example, but it was hard to get a good picture of these in action.) We were told that the brightness can be adjusted, which will no doubt come in handy for nighttime use, but we get the impression that typing near a window awash with natural light might not be the best experience. Also noticeable is just how small the Popularis is compared to its predecessor – closer in size to Apple's compact desktop keyboard with the number pad chopped off.

Of course, having customizable keys and a display of that size means nothing if the keyboard doesn't do well what it was designed to do in the first place – type.

In that respect, it's a bit too early to pass judgement based on a few minutes on the show floor, but we will say this: the experience is...weird. The keys felt a bit stiff and didn't quite have the same response as, say, a laptop keyboard with scissor switches. But the real problem was getting over the psychological hangup of, essentially, staring at a screen with keys on-top. It's hard to explain, but knowing that there were still pixels hidden under the spaces between keys made it feel as if the keys were, in a sense, in the way. Thankfully, that feeling goes away when you start typing in earnest, but it definitely stays at the back of your mind each time you glance down at the keys.

If you'll recall, the Optimus Maximus started shipping in 2008 for a whopping price of $1,600 (you can buy a high-end PC for about that price). And while the concept of seperate OLED displays for each of the keyboard's 113 keys was certainly an interesting technical feat, it also drove up the cost considerably. However, by opting for one big LCD panel instead, the cost of the Popularis has been cut to a still-pricey-but-slightly-less-pricey price of $1000 USD (and they're discontinuing the Optimus too). That's far from pocket change, but Art Lebedev seems to think the professional audience it has in mind will find the cash – assuming, of course, it actually ships.