Fingers-On With Optimus Line of All-LED Keyboards: Every Key is a Screen

LAS VEGAS -- What if your keyboard was your screen? What if it were dozens of screens? At CES, Russian design firm Art Lebedev showed off its upcoming Optimus Popularis keyboard, along with its Optimus Aux and Mini Six keypads, a set of unique data entry devices where every single one of the keys is its own separate, customizable LED screen.

On the Popularis keyboard, the keys themselves can show different characters (switch to Hebrew or Greek letters with a click), show icons for your shortcuts or run macros. You can even run little mini apps in the keys like a stock-ticker key that shows the current price of a particular stock then takes you to your online broker when depressed. A wide screen between the number and function keys can display all kinds of content as well, leaving open a world of possibilities from news and stocks to calendar appointments, emails and Twitter feeds.

We can also imagine professionals modifying the keyboard based on what application they're using. Video editors might make the tiny screen show a timeline or sound level visualizations. The keys could light up with icons for particular shortcuts in Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. The possibilities are endless.

Due out later this spring, the Popularis isn't Art Lebedev Studios' first All-LED keyboard. Its Optimus Maximus keyboard has been out for a while now and features 113 keys, including a numeric keypad, but no dedicated screen above the number row. Here in the U.S., ThinkGeek sells the Maximus for $1,799, but it's currently out of stock. 

In addition to the pricey Polaris, Lebedev is introducing a couple of keypads that can sit beside your notebook or keyboard. The Optimus Aux has five rows of three keys each for a total of 15 and includes two USB ports on its back so you can attach other peripherals to it. The Optimus Mini Six is much smaller, with three rows of two keys each.

We had a chance to go hands-on with all three devices at the Art Lebedev Studios booth here at CES and were amazed by the bright color of the LED keys and their ability to show animations. One key on the Aux even had a moving bar chart on it. The Popularis on display was a preproduction unit with keys that were not clickable, but the final unit should have decent key travel. We were very pleased with the sharp tactile response of the buttons we pressed on the Optimus Aux and Mini Six.

None of these devices will come cheap when retailers start selling them, as Lebedev estimates retail prices of $1,290 for the Optimus Popularis, $600 for the Optimus Aux and $450 for the Optimus Mini Six. However, if you are a professional who works in media editing, these custom keys could prove invaluable to you. We imagine more people will go for the Aux and the Mini Six than the full keyboard, not only because of cost but also because typing on a full keyboard with square, clear plastic keys might seem a little awkward to them. 

Still, for those who need cutting edge productivity tools for their high-end workstations, the cost of these peripherals is a drop in the bucket. Optimus Line provides a truly unique and compelling productivity tool with limitless possibilities for media editing professionals, programmers or even media kiosks. 

Consumers who want a taste of this technology may want to check out Razer's Knights of the Old Republic keyboard and its Switch Blade notebook, both of which have 10 LED keys. 

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.