My First Worldest Problem Ever

As I was sitting in the coffee shop in Westlake Center drawing Absinthe, my handheld keyboard started acting wonky. Probably because it ran out of power. It’s impossible to tell if it’s out of battery because Windows doesn’t show the power level of Bluetooth devices like my Mac does, but experience has taught me this is usually why it misbehaves.

I looked in my bag and had, as I feared, left the USB cable to recharge it at home.

This is the most first world problem I have ever had in my life. I have to stop drawing my goofy pornographic comic because the chord keyboard I use along with the tablet computer I draw on is out of power.

(I’m downtown, and could maybe find a cable – but I’d have to get a USB 3/2 adapter as well and just, ugh, too much stuff, easier to pop home and grab it.)

The Wand Of Illustrator Control

If you’re like me, then you’ve got multiple years behind you of drawing with one hand on the stylus and the other on the keyboard, hitting hotkeys. You might have even gone so far as to customize those keys – I’m all at sea on a stock installation of Illustrator, since half the keys I hit constantly default to longer shortcuts, or aren’t assigned to anything at all out of the box.

And if you’re like me, then poking at all the tool icons and browsing through the menu feels like trudging through mud compared to the fast flow of using both hands to draw. When I first started playing with the Surface, I set up a huge panel of buttons with RadialMenu; this helped but there was still a lot of visual and positional processing I had to do that felt totally unnecessary. And my left hand still felt woefully unused. All these fingers and brain circuits completely idling.

Carrying around a spare Apple wireless keyboard worked pretty well, once I made Windows swap the “windows” and control keys. But that’s way too big to take out and use on a bus seat.

So first I got a cheap Bluetooth numpad and started remapping it. Which was a deep rabbit hole of multiple keyboard remapping programs and editing text files. Which I failed to keep when I returned the Surface, and really wasn’t looking forwards to redoing when I got the Mobile Studio.

Instead, I spent $200 on a Twiddler 3 chording keyboard.

After a few days of configuring and fiddling and swearing, I think it’s been worth it. I completely ditched the default configuration and built a customized one that puts about sixty key commands at my fingertips, split up into nine pages of different categories of functions. And also has the alphabet and numbers on it. I’m still learning how to use it, but it’s coming pretty quickly – I can do the most frequently used commands with only a tiny bit of thought now, and I can feel my brain learning these new hand positions as alternative ways to do what hitting one key or another would do. Give it a week or two and I’ll probably be able to do a lot of stuff without referring to the little cheat sheet I printed out, and keep in my bag next to the Twiddler.

Things I learnt about the Twiddler during this process:

  • You build your layouts with an online tool. Which has this terrible habit of wanting to reload itself every time you create a new chord. There is a beta version of a new version, which is merely “kind of sluggish”, but at least mostly works without constantly hitting the Internet. Go straight to this version. Don’t waste any time with the old one.
  • You have to plug the Twiddler into your computer to upload a new layout to it – it shows up as a small USB drive, and you just replace ‘twiddler.cfg’. But when you test this layout, chords involving modifier keys can come out weird. For instance, mapping a keypress to command-z would result in just typing ‘z’ about twenty times out of twenty-one. Updating to the beta version of the latest firmware fixed this, though it didn’t fix some other problems involving not being able to make chords that involve the shift/ctrl/alt buttons on the Twiddler that do not actually hold down the respective modifier keys in their output. Unplug it and go to a Bluetooth connection when you want to test it.
  • It is small and easy to misplace. I got a black one to match the Mobile Studio, and thought I’d left it behind when I took it out at a restaurant to show it to a friend. Turned out it was just sitting on the edge of my computer desk, in shadow. Consider putting your contact info on its outside.
  • The layout that it ships with is pretty worthless, even if your main use case isn’t mostly emitting a bunch of hotkeys that involve holding down the command keys. There’s about 3-4 alternate layouts the small, intensely nerdy Twiddler community has created; I’m using the letters from one called “Mirrorwalk”, which makes every letter key available as a chord in the upper three rows of the keyboard.
  • If you have a hotkey that requires you to hold it for a long time, you can’t put it in a normal chord. Instead, bind that key to one of the three round buttons at the top of the keyboard, which default to the mouse button. I have ` and space mapped to two of these, which I hold down to (respectively) move/rotate/scale an object’s fill pattern without changing the object, and to summon the Canvas-Dragging Hand. (And if I hold that down along with the Twiddler’s shift, and one of the Wacom stylus’ buttons, I can drag out a zoom rectangle, which is something wired deep into my brain for moving around Illustrator.)

I hope they fix the “holding shift keys while on a wired connection can conflict with chords that involve shift keys” problem soon; once they do I’ll be able to plug it into the Mobile Studio while it’s in airplane mode! Right now I’ll be stuck using the Mobile Studio’s six keys and the array of buttons I created with Radial Menu.

My current layout, as of Jan 6. Drawn as if you’re holding the Twiddler with the keys facing away from you, and you have X-ray vision to see them anyway. Still needs work, mostly to see how much punctuation I can add to it for the general ‘typing’ use, as well as to figure out why a few keys aren’t generating what they’re supposed to. A  • means ‘hold this key down’; ‘dda’ is a macro that presses d, d, command-shift-a, n – which is a thing I type a lot to cycle the draw mode to ‘draw inside’, deselect the shape I selected to draw inside, and switch back to the pencil tool so I can, well, draw stuff inside it. I grin every time I make this happen with one quick chord now.