The future of computer input

Roben Walker

Gamers know that the right controller or performance keyboard and mouse makes all the difference when it comes to getting an edge over competitors. So why hasn’t the way we interface with software on computers evolved beyond these forms of input?

That curiosity led Calvin Chu, founder and CEO of Monogram, to create the original Palette Gear, which has since morphed into the second-generation Creative Console. Both products are a set of modular buttons, dials, and sliders that connect together like Tetris blocks in whatever configuration you want using magnets. Instead of moving sliders in Photoshop or Lightroom to make adjustments to an image, you might turn a dial or push a slider, kind of like you’re a DJ.

“It’s not just a robotic activity,” Chu says about editing hundreds or thousands of photos using the Creative Console’s sliders and dials. “There’s a motion and self-expression in it that you can’t get with dragging a mouse cursor all day.”

A whole crop of customizable and configurable controllers like the Palette Gear and Creative Console have sprung up in recent years — all with the aim of speeding up workflows. You may have heard of the Loupedeck, a similar product, but one with a far less configurable physical layout. “In a lot of cases, a keyboard and mouse hasn’t really changed since the typewriter so looking to meet that diversity — we really felt that the best tools are the ones that fit the way you work.”

“There’s a motion and self-expression in it that you can’t get with dragging a mouse cursor all day.”

I’ve been using the Creative Console Studio set — frequently switching up the layout depending on the app or workflow — for the past couple of months and augmenting my mechanical keyboard and mouse with it has not only sped up repetitive tasks, but also has made using my computer all day long a more engaging and pleasant experience. Editing photos and videos or even scrolling websites and navigating around multiple virtual desktops is less of a chore and feels more like hopping into a fighter jet with a panel of controls at your disposal — it brings the inner child out of me every time.

Using a Creative Console is the sort of aha moment that’s hard to explain until you try it for yourself long term; mechanical keyboard enthusiasts who relish the way different switches sound, the actuation force of key travel, and the feel of keycaps, know exactly what I’m talking about. No wonder everyone from bloggers, to artists, to Hollywood studios that have worked on big-budget movies and TV shows like The Lion King and The Mandalorian are taking notice and using Monogram’s controller blocks to reach creative nirvana. It could possibly be the future of computer input (at least one form of it).

Toy to tool

There is no correct layout. Create one that suits individual apps, workflows, or moods. Yes, change it up daily. Why not?Raymond Wong / Input

As much as I enjoyed using the Palette Gear, it was very much a first-gen product. The hardware was mostly robust, but buttons, sliders, and dials on each module lacked the right resistance — that palpable amount of force — to make input controls feel intuitive and responsive. Little annoyances like even the slightest response latency between the turn of a dial and a corresponding on-screen action always made the Palette Gear feel more like a toy than a proper tool for getting real computer work done.

Chu, who studied Human-computer Interaction (HCI) in university, doesn’t dodge the shortcomings of the Palette Gear during a Zoom call, but is confident that his Canada-based startup of just under a dozen employees, has listened to feedback and applied them to the Creative Console.

“We were going for refinement,” says Chu. “We knew we had a really good platform and a concept that people really loved. We wanted to go back to the drawing board and redesign it — to solve those issues and refine everything and polish it.”

“Refinement” is definitely the word to describe the Creative Console hardware. In addition to backward compatibility with the Palette Gear, the design and engineering team really focused on tightening the details — small ergonomic tweaks and tucks that most users might not even notice, but add up to big quality of life improvements.

“Our teams did a lot of work to lower the height and make it a lot more slim and comfortable so that the hand position was less elevated off the desktop. Another thing we did was bring the inputs closer together so it was more compact. So reducing some of the hand movements and trying to keep everything closer to underneath your hands so it’s easier to work off muscle memory for less hand movements.”

The dials, sliders, and buttons on the Creative Console modules are more responsive than on the old Palette Gear.Raymond Wong / Input

Chu is underselling the hardware improvements in my opinion. Switching from the Palette Gear to the Creative Console is night and day. While the Palette Gear’s programmable buttons were basically cribbed from arcade sticks and the dials inspired by old volume knobs the Creative Console skews more toward function than form. Don’t get me wrong, the sturdy aluminum modules are as minimalist and look great on a desk as Palette Gear did (they’ve got programmable LEDs, too), but the tactility of each press and turn, especially on the Orbiter module (more on that in a minute) is what gives it credibility as a computer input. Simply put: Creative Console is far more responsive than Palette Gear. Crucial to the boost in responsiveness was the re-engineered implementation of HID joystick, HID keyboard, and MIDI connections.

“MIDI refreshes at twice the rate Palette Gear did,” Chu says. “We’ll never get feedback saying ‘Hey you guys really have to work on your refresh rate’ but if we have a musician that upgrades from Palette Gear to Creative Console and they immediately feel more connected when they’re controlling like their expression modulation, that’s an almost intangible thing. They’re gonna be one step more connected to their work.”

The CNC’d aluminum modules are more robust than before.Raymond Wong / Input

Better hardware is one reason, but the real breakthrough is vastly superior software, without which the Creative Console could not be taken seriously.

“The software was rebuilt — new architecture to make it more reliable with performance improvements,” says Chu. “The electrical design was redone and there’s now a real-time operating system on it so the firmware was completely updated to get the reliability where it needs to be.”

The Creator app is easily configurable to layouts and app actions.Raymond Wong / Input

There’s a wealth of programmable macros for each module.Raymond Wong / Input

The very first thing I noticed after setting up the Creative Console was how much better the software was. The short lag and frustrating random connection issues I had with Palette Gear are not present with the Creative Console. The Creator app that you use to manage and configure control layouts is snappier and the breadth of apps that are supported has increased. In March, integration with Unreal Engine was added, and this week, support for Final Cut Pro.

“With the new Creator app: we basically rebuilt the house from the foundation up so to speak,” says Chu. “The largest engineering work going from the Palette app to Creator was on the backend to make an architecture that’s more extensible and is more easy to develop for by third parties as well as by ourselves. We made this so that we can quickly and thoroughly capitalize on software partnerships with these really performant integrations and that wasn’t possible with the Palette app.”

Next-gen

Buttons, dials, and sliders are not new to computer interfaces. Musicians and creative professionals such as photographers, filmmakers, and editors have used various forms of these inputs to improve their workflows for decades. They’re just not commonplace because, whereas a keyboard and mouse have wide ranges of use, controller inputs like the Creative Console are for more specialized tasks.

This specialization hasn’t stopped Chu from inventing new inputs. For example, the patent-pending Orbiter, a pressure-sensitive disc, is a stab at something entirely new. The ring on the outside is rotatable and can be used for a number of functions from scrolling to changing the angle of a 3D model. Sitting in the center is the pressure-sensitive disc, which can be pressed and pushed in any direction at different speeds. It’s the most unique input in Monogram’s arsenal and the most fun to use; better than a traditional trackball, more flexible than a jog wheel or dial, and more expressive than a joystick.

The Orbiter is unlike any input device you’ve ever used.Raymond Wong / Input

“The Orbiter was a several-years-long R&D project where we were trying to look at what’s next and see what’s missing in the market,” Chu tells me. “In the end, we ended up basically inventing a new input device.”

Everything inside of the Orbiter, from the sensor to the software to the mechanical design is custom. Chu says he saw the need for a new way to work with 3D content. “Even things like color grading is technically a three-dimensional manipulation.” He didn’t feel existing joysticks and controllers provided enough latitude and thus the Orbiter was born.

Creative Console modules during the development process.Monogram

“We looked at trackballs and we found that they’re pretty bulky just by the fact that you need a physical sphere of matter in it and they’re prone to dust and they’re hard to carry around. We looked at joysticks, where the position wasn’t super comfortable for a desktop setting. And then also looking at a few other devices where it would be hard to move three axes at the same time but also move them independently if you wanted. So having something that you could have multi-dimensional control, but also single-dimensional control if you wanted in an isolated manner.”

Integrating the Orbiter into my workflow and using it for editing photos and videos took some getting used to (more than a month for me). But after I fully embraced this new way of working — and you really have to allow yourself time to adapt to it just like with the Loupedeck or you’ll never have that aha moment — it’s hard to imagine any other way of working in certain apps like Adobe’s Creative Suite. Doing finger gymnastics to perform a keyboard shortcut or constantly dragging sliders with a mouse now seems so primitive. Even basic operations like thumbing through Chrome tabs or juggling virtual desktops are more enjoyable.

The Orbiter is more fun than using a trackball.Raymond Wong / Input

“The design behind [the pressure-sensitive disc] was to really keep your hands in one place, but still give you that expression and control so that you’re always pressing on a downward motion versus on a joystick, where you’re pressing forward, you’re pressing back, you’re pulling up,” says Chu. “The Ring, which is separate, you can use it as a jog wheel on its own as like a big dial, but you can also have your fingers over your disc and your thumb over the ring and you can move all three at the same time if you wanted as well.”

Movie magic

Even having used the Creative Console daily for months, I’m still scratching the surface at what these programmable and customizable modules can be used for. In professional hands, creatives are using Creative Console to find new and more efficient ways to perform existing tasks.

A perfect example: the production team for Disney’s The Mandalorian (and The Lion King) used Monogram’s input controls for a process called virtual production. “They’re basically making films in game engines. So the software they’re using is Unreal Engine and they’re able to do virtual green screens. They’re able to mix in-camera with VFX [in real-time],” says Chu.

“The trend in virtual production is to basically get a higher level of fidelity sooner in the process so instead of shooting folks on chroma key, you’re shooting folks on an LED wall where they can see the world they’re interacting with so the actors can be better immersed in the moment,” Andy Hayes, product experience manager at Monogram explained to me. “As a cinematographer or as a director, you can know when you have the take rather than a take that’s still approximately what you need. By moving this pipeline from the post-production visual effects to pre-production and real-time, it’s really powerful for helping the actors and the direction crew stay engaged.”

Real-time virtual production is where modules like the Orbiter shine. It allows filmmakers and production crew to manipulate virtual cameras within game engines during shooting instead of waiting for post.

“Where [production crews] are used to working with physical camera wheels and hardware and lighting, where you’d normally move a camera, how you’d do this in Unreal Engine is you’d write a keyframe for your camera device ‘here,’ then you’d write a keyframe for your virtual camera to be ‘here,’ and it’s just not engaging,” Hayes said. “Now if you’re a cinematographer and you can use physical hardware to simulate a camera movement rather than just keying it using the mouse and keyboard? That’s a game-changer, because it allows you to actually be in the moment rather than having to pull yourself out of it, go into a game engine and think opposite side of the brain, and then try to go back into your creativity mode.”

It’s natural that Hollywood would embrace new technologies. It’d be stupid not to explore better ways to making stuff. But Monogram remains focused on targeting mainstream creatives and not going full enterprise. The new wave of Instagrammers and YouTubers (and yes, perhaps, even office workers) are the ones pioneering new workflows. Why shackle yourself to old methods of controls for the sake of tradition? There’s no reason to.

Worth it

The Creative Console is an investment. Long term, over 5-10 years, it pays for itself with workflow efficiency.Raymond Wong / Input

Monogram’s modular inputs, especially when you string together a bunch of modules, are not cheap. The Traveler Console kit ($400) comes with four modules: the main core module, sliders, dials, and the essential keys. The Studio Console ($500) that I’ve been testing comes with five modules, which includes the core module, two dial modules, the essential keys module, and an Orbiter. And the Master Console ($800) has nine modules: one core, three dials, three Orbiters, and two essential keys modules. Like I said, pricey. But the time you save and the intangible state of creative flow you’re put in are priceless.

It sounds like a whole lot of malarkey, but if you know, you know. Maybe a mouse and keyboard suffice for you, but there’s also an entire world where precision is cranked to eleven with products like the Creative Console. For creatives like me, the investment — it really is one — is worth it. Any way to make tedious and repetitive work more fun is a worthwhile upgrade in my book.

There’s also an entire world where precision is cranked to eleven.

“I think for folks, especially nowadays, who are spending 8 to 10 hours, sometimes 12 hours a day [in front of their computers], we think there are people that really get a lot of value from it, especially something that you’re touching all day, every day for your work,” says Chu.

Add on that these products are built to last and continue to be supported for years to come with new firmware and software compatibility and suddenly dropping $500 on the Studio Console is no different than forking over hundreds of dollars for a nice mechanical keyboard that’ll last a lifetime.

“They are built with high-quality materials because we want them to last. We don’t want them to fail or if you drop them, we don’t want you to be out of your most important tools. We’re proud that our products are still usable 5-10 years later. It’s definitely an investment. People will definitely get their money’s worth.”

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