Tristan Hume

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Fixing My Keyboard's Latency

29 December 2017

While discussing Dan Luu’s keyboard latency experiments I realized that I had never tested my keyboard’s latency. I use a custom keyboard I designed and built, but when I wrote the firmware I was focused on getting it working and didn’t pay any attention to latency. When I took a look at the source code and immediately saw a 10ms delay that was there for no other reason than paranoia, I knew I was in for some fun.

After a bunch of measuring, finding and squashing sources of latency, I managed to improve the latency of the main loop from 30 milliseconds to 700 microseconds. I then added a feature that changed the colour of the keyboard’s RGB LEDs on every key press so that I could use the Is It Snappy app with my iPhone’s high speed camera mode to do some latency testing.

The first thing I found was that with my improved firmware the end to end latency of typing a character in Sublime Text and XCode 9 near the top of my Macbook display is around 42ms1. This is pretty good, but the astonishing thing is that it means that before I fixed the firmware my keyboard used to account for almost half of my end-to-end typing latency. This is measuring from the LED colour change so it doesn’t count the around 15ms1 according to my testing from starting to press one of my keys the switch activating.

I also tested my Macbook keyboard, as well as a few older low speed USB Apple keyboards, and found that they had around 67ms1 of end-to-end latency, measuring from when the switch was fully depressed while hitting the key as fast as I could. I suspect part of the reason for this is that these keyboards only poll at 8ms and 10ms intervals according to USB Prober (an old Apple dev tool), whereas the Teensy in my custom keyboard polls every millisecond. According to Dan’s post newer Apple external keyboards also poll at 1000hz.

Note that the 700us main loop doesn’t translate into 700us switch-to-USB latency, since the USB transfer is done asynchronously via DMA by the Teensy’s USB controller when it is polled, which happens at 1000hz.

It’s interesting that I used my keyboard for 3 years without noticing that it added 30ms of latency. I have a few guesses why:

Anyhow here’s how I managed to bring the latency down from 30ms to 700us:

  1. I added some measurement code that printed the time spent in the main loop to the Serial console after every key press. This gave me the 30ms figure.
  2. I removed the 10ms delay in the main loop, and everything still worked.
  3. I searched for other delays and found one 2ms one between enabling a row for scanning and reading it, which I removed with no apparent consequences. I added back in a 2 microsecond delay just in case.
  4. I had tried to make the display on my keyboard only update when it changed, but I messed this up somewhere else and it was taking 5ms to update on every key press.
  5. The right half of my keyboard is scanned using an I/O expander over i2c since I didn’t have enough pins on the Teensy. This is the same way the two halves of the Ergodox work. Based on some Ergodox firmware I saw, I reinitialized the direction registers of the I/O expander before every scan, just in case. Unfortunately this added 2ms and wasn’t really necessary since unlike the Ergodox you can’t disconnect the second half of my keyboard with a cable.
  6. Now my loop was taking 3.8ms which was almost entirely the i2c communication with the I/O expander. A friend recommended I check out nox771’s fast i2c library. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t compile on the super old version of the Arduino/Teensyduino software I was using. I decided to upgrade, and after several hours in C++ compilation hell and accounting for a few changes, it worked. I bumped the i2c frequency up to 1.8 megahertz and now my loops took 700us!
  7. Now I started running into bouncing problems that lead to the occasionally doubled letter, so I needed to implement debouncing. Some ways of implementing debouncing add latency but that’s totally unnecessary. I implemented a simple technique that sends transitions immediately and then doesn’t update a key for 5ms after.

The specifics are only relevant to other people building keyboard firmware, especially the fast i2c one which I don’t think most ErgoDox firmwares use. But I think it’s interesting to see how easy it was to improve the latency of software that wasn’t designed for it with only a few hours work.

  1. I use an iPhone 5S, which can only record at 120fps, so while these numbers are consistent over multiple measurements, they may be off by as much as 8ms.  2 3

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