USB NeXT Keyboard

USB NeXT Keyboard

[Ladyada] and [pt] had an old keyboard from NeXT, but since it used a custom protocol it wasn’t usable with modern hardware. So they built a custom device to convert the NeXT protocol to USB.

The device uses a Arduino Micro to read data from the keyboard and communicate as a HID device over USB. It connects to the keyboard using the original mini-DIN connector, and is housed in the classic Altoids tin enclosure.

Since the protocol used by NeXT isn’t standard, they had to figure it out and write some code to interpret it. The keyboard communicates bidirectionally with the computer, so they needed to send the correct frames to key data back.

Fortunately, they hit on a Japanese keyboard enthusiast’s site, which had protocol specifications. They implemented this protocol on the Micro, and used the Keyboard library to create a HID device.

The final product is an adapter for NeXT to USB, which allows for the old keyboards to be used on any computer with USB. It’s a good way to bring back life to some otherwise unusable antique hardware.

24 thoughts on “USB NeXT Keyboard

    1. They were the keyboards for the defunct NeXT Computer, which was a company Steve Jobs founded after he was ousted from Apple. I think the main reason for the hack is nostalgia value, and to teach people how to make HID keyboards on the Arduino Micro.

    2. There is all the history about NeXT and its relation to Apple. Also Sir Tim Berners-Lee implemented the very first web server and web browser on a NeXT Cube. There were some very interesting technical aspects to the machine.

      The article implies the “feel” of the keyboard is desirable.

      IMHO, the real invention in this hack occurred by the Japanese person who reverse engineered the protocol and the author of the HID Library.

    3. The ousted Steve Jobs founded NeXT which developed the Mach microkernel based NeXT OS on 68k, then subsequently ported it to x86 hardware.
      Apple, running into MacOS7 design limitations, looked at NeXT OS and BeOS (Be Inc. was started by Jean-Louis Gassée, another Apple alumnus) and chose NeXT along with Steve Jobs. Apple quickly distributed a copy of Rhapsody to developers as the replacement after MacOS 7/8/9, and was in fact x86 NeXT OS with a few changes that could be installed on an x86 PC (I still have the Rhapsody CD set). Soon after, Apple got Rhapsody running on PowerPC, which became OS X, which has now been ported back to x86 it seems. The NeXT cube is a living piece of history!!

    4. It sounds like you never experienced what it’s like to type on a top tier mechanical keyboard. They provide a pleasant tactile sensation along with an audible confirmation, turning the chore of typing into a very satisfying experience. Some will even describe it as orgasmic.

      Sadly, mechanical keyboards were once common during the 80s and 90s. In today’s computer market, however, where manufacturers focus on delivering the highest performance for the lowest cost, the keyboard is the first piece of hardware to be cheapened since it is perceived as adding little value to their offerings. Today’s all too common rubber dome keys are good enough for vast majority of customers. Consequently, there are few mechanical keyboards still being made today. Most are pricey and pale in comparison to their vintage counterparts.

      The NeXT keyboard is a particularly highly sought after vintage mechanical keyboard. It features Alps SKCM Black and SKCM Cream switches where are regarded as the best switches every made. They have a smooth actuation which bottoms off with a crisp tactile sensation and, depending on the model, a slightly muted click or thock sound. A NeXT keyboard, even in the poorest condition, can fetch a hundred or more dollars, if for no other reason than for its switches. One in excellent condition with SKCM Cream switches can easily fetch over $200 or more dollars.

      If you ever have a chance to try one, I strongly recommend it. My particular favorite Alps-based keyboard is the Apple //c keyboard which features the Alps SKCM Ambers. Since they only appear on the Apple //c keyboard, they are very expensive since the Apple //c is also a highly collectable machine.

    5. laughing in 2021: New made-with-original-equipment “IBM -Model F” keyboards are $450, The vintage, broken versions of those and “Model M”s are going $350+ New “mechanical keyboards,” even DIY kits, are $1000 and up. There’s a NeXT keyboard on eBay going for $175+$51.50 shipping now. Wow, did you miss the boat back then! There was a point where people were getting suckered into buying Model M Terminal keyboards instead of ones that could actually work on PCs, but now there’s a “Soarer’s” converter for the terminal keyboards to work to. The future will be about recycling everything worthwhile. Soylent Green is People!!! lol

    1. But was that a Next ADB or non-ADB keyboard?The ADB ones are Apple ADB compatible, so any Apple ADB device “should” work, as would an off the shelf ADB -> USB converter. The non-ADB ones are probably a whole different world of pain though.

  1. IIRC one of the NeXT black and gold manuals had details on the pinouts for the cableing and some other details of the protocols. The SysAdmin manual maybe.
    Of course, its been a while and I’ve slept since then, so I might be mistaken.

    There were a few other hacks back in the day of getting non-NeXT keyboards running on slabs, and NeXT keyboards running on PC’s through the PS2 connector, probably detailed on usenet archives.

    NeXTSTEP for Intel Processors was a little more skimpy on the documentation than what came with the slabs or cubes. If I find my old manuals in a box somewhere, I’ll post more info.

    1. One of the fun things I did once was hook up a old DECWriter LA36 to the serial port. I had intended to do anything as root on the Teletype to keep a record for the others at work. Plus I thought it would be cool and useful to pipe the console to the tty. We had several LA36’s sitting around wasting space. I never was able to get the termcap right for the LA36 and the text would gradually walk to the right. The same DECWriter worked just fine on our old DataGeneral, so something was flaky on the NeXT side of things.
      Nethack on a teletype is a huge waste of paper ;-)

  2. This is a great keyboard. Nice compact layout, high quality Alps key switches, no Caps Lock key.

    The NeXT keyboard employed a couple of tricks to accommodate its compact layout that are worth considering if you plan to implementing something yourself.

    There is no Caps Lock key. Instead, Caps is enabled with the Command+Shift key combo, which turns on the green LEDs on either shift key.

    The Escape key is next to the “1” key, where the back-tick/tilde key would be. This would be a problem for Unix users, however, pressing the Shift+Escape produces a tilde character just as with a more traditional keyboard layout. It’s a nice touch for Unix users.

  3. This is a fine hack but…
    This seems like trying to repair a CFL light bulb just for the challenge: Interesting and possibly fun, but ultimately it’s much more efficient to just replace it with a new one for $3.

  4. Awesome. I might actually use that, though then I would need a reverse USB Keyboard to NeXT adapter so I could still use my NeXT machine. Also, something for the NeXT mouse would be good.

  5. Hi.
    I reproduced step by step these guide, but ubuntu 14.04 and Mac os Yosemite do nor recognize the keyboard. I wonder if it is encessary to do something else. Thanks.


  6. Brilliant work here, mad cred to everyone involved.

    I know this is a dated thread at this point but I was wondering if anyone knows if this will work with the even crazier NeXT keyboard with the command button BELOW the space bar. Check out this link for a visual:

    Griffin still sells an ADB to USB adapter but given the two-way communication factor mentioned earlier I’m not sure if that will work. Anyway, I love unique items and projects like this so if anyone has any insight into the matter it would be much appreciated.

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