Looking Forward, Not Back
Within the last year or two, we've seen a number of manufacturers begin to integrate colored RGB lighting into their keyboards. The current high-end is a mechanical keyboard with individual RGB illumination for each key. Most major manufacturers have a keyboard that fits within this standard. Players can use vendor software to set up profiles for different games, highlighting different keys in various colors depending on what game you're playing.
This new lighting focus might be visual-only, but it has a side effect of potentially-evolving the keyboard as an input-output device. Every manufacturer I spoke to has worked with developers to provide in-game status information via the lights on each key. Working in tandem with a game, a keyboard can tell you how much health or ammo you have. Alternatively, like the PlayStation 4 Dual Shock 4, the entire keyboard can light up to provide different status updates.
"We believe pretty strongly that keyboards and other devices can become more than just input," said SteelSeries' director of gaming. "Right now, the obvious solution is illumination. You can see some fun stuff with the M800. We're trying to build an ecosystem that will help us seriously consider other methods for getting feedback from games."
Logitech worked with Rockstar Games to provide similiar functionality with Grand Theft Auto V when you're using the G910+ Orion Spark. As an example, the keyboard changes its lighting to red and blue when you're being chased by the police in-game. That's instant feedback at your fingertips and keyboard vendors are hoping it becomes a larger part of games in the future. Of course, for that to happen, more players need to have RGB-enabled keyboards.
"The BlackWidow Chroma and the BlackWidow Ultimate are two of the best-selling keyboards in the U.S. and they have been for past two years," said Razer's GM of peripherals. "With that sort of installed base, it gives confidence to game developers to go and write in-game support because they know there will be an addressable market out there. We have an active dialog with game developers. Going forward, you're going to see more and more games using the backlighting features of the keyboard to provide status information. We're getting to the point where there are enough RGB-capable BlackWidow products out there that you'll start seeing developers use that SDK. It's a chicken-egg situation."
Outside of lighting though, there's a feeling that perhaps keyboard technology has reached its apex. (No pun intended, SteelSeries.) Mechanical switches are very old technology that's returning on retail shelves and online storefronts. What's next for keyboards and is there any room for innovation?
For Razer, the call of stagnation and lack of innovation are old hat. People talked about the death of PC gaming years ago and PC gaming is still here. The company believes there's still room to grow.
"I don't think the QWERTY style keyboard is going anywhere. I think it's well-established." said Mookerjee. "In the days before Steam established itself with consumers, PC gaming looked like it was beginning to lose momentum. Part of that was news stories that looked technically correct, but were factually incorrect. Reports of PC gaming dwindling in revenue, but that was from the perspective of the retailers who were selling less boxed games."
"In those days, people were saying it was the death of the mouse and keyboard, because we could use the game controller," he continued. "Those of us who were gaming knew that wasn't the case. We weren't gaming despite the mouse and keyboard, we were PC gaming because of the mouse and keyboard. The flexibility you have with a mouse and keyboard is very difficult to accomplish with a gamepad. Until Halo on the Xbox, there wasn't really a satisfying first-person shooter. Before that first-person shooting with a gamepad was pretty sad existence."
SteelSeries' Jeff Malhmeister thinks the world has opened up for mechanical keyboards, especially now that switch manufacturers are looking to the space as a viable business.
"I feel like we are hitting a point for some innovation," he told me. "Switch manufacturers are interested now in innovating with accessory makers. We're in tune with the market needs. If you had asked me that 12 months ago, I'd probably would've said, 'Yeah, there isn't room to innovate,' but I believe fundamentally as we look at our keyboard roadmap that there is room to innovate again. A lot of it is just the feeling and size of the keys. We can even change the technology, perhaps in the contact point. Over in Asia, a lot of people are trying out new stuff. We're on the cusp of some fundamental changes."