The Sphinx (Russian: СФИНКС) was an experimental Soviet project for a home automation system, commissioned by the State Committee for Science and Technology and designed by Dmitry Azrikan, in collaboration with A. Kolotushkin and V. Goessen, in 1987.
When I saw the photos of this mockup which appeared in a 1987 issue of Technical Aesthetics (Техническая эстетика) Magazine I knew that I had to have one. Unfortunately, it was just a mockup. The system, which would have featured wireless peripherals, detachable monitors and speakers, and flat-screen full-color monitors was far beyond the capabilities of the Soviet Union (or anyone else) to create at the time.
My plan is to recreate at least the keyboard, handset, speakers, and small monitor portion of the system using modern materials, processes, and technologies.
This project has been on the back burner while I move house, but I'm almost set up in my new space and ready to continue with projects. In the meantime, I have acquired an SLA printer which should allow me to print the masters for the key cap castings and I've also gotten my hands on a selection of short-stroke key switches to test.
I started this project by finding as many photos as I could of the SPHINX mock-up. The photos fell into three categories:
Photos from Technical Aesthetics taken in 1987 - These photos are beautifully staged, but suffer the limitations of photography and printing reproduction at the time. There is one excellent detail photo of the keyboard on it's own (along with an alternate design?) which will come in handy for drafting the layout, but the legends are mostly illegible. One popular photo also appeared mirrored in the magazine, making the keyboard backwards.
Smartphone photos taken of a replica currently on display at the Moscow Design Museum - I was only able to find two or three of these photos. They're much higher quality than the vintage photos, but they're also all taken at a relatively low angle through the glass surrounding the display case. In addition, after reviewing these photos (and the following category of photos) I'm convinced that the item currently on display at the MDM is actually a reproduction of the 1987 mock-up, reproduced from photograph without actual dimensions. I'll elaborate on this later.
Modern promotional photos taken of the MDM replica - There is exactly one high-resolution photo taken of the modern replica system which was sent to me by @mwichary on Twitter (who is currently writing a book on the history of keyboards). This photo is absolutely beautiful, but the keyboard still appears at a very steep angle. After some transformation and squinting, however, I was able to transcribe and translate the key legends.
Here is an ensmallened version of the hi-res I ended up working from to transcribe the legends. The full 3000x2473 pixel webp file is available in the files section of this project.
Here is the keyboard extracted as best I could manage from the image above:
And finally, the transcribed and translated legends:
Now that we know the legend, we need to nail down the scale and layout. This is where the differences between the modern reproduction and the photographed mock-up from 1987 become much more clear. Notice in the above photo that the keyboard is laid out orthographically using very simple size relationships. Also notice that the triangles on the left-hand side fail to land neatly on the grid. Now, observe this photo from 1987:
In this photo, the keyboard can be divided vertically into even thirds with the left-hand triangles pointing to the center of each row. This spacial relationship also makes those top-row keys the same size as the large left-hand keys, reducing the variety of key sizes overall. Obviously, this was the intention, an elegant design based on halves and thirds. The modern replica appears to squeeze the top third of the keyboard. So this, the 1987 original layout, will be our prototype.
Now that we understand the spacial relationship of the keys, we need to find the size. This is where we'll begin to compromise. There is nothing in any of these photos of a known size, so scaling is a little difficult, but there's one magazine photo that gives us a ballpark:
If we assume that these keys are to be the same size as those which appear on the main console, then they're actually somewhat small. There's no way of knowing how large this person's hand is, so an exact dimension is lost to time, but if we imagine the minimum key size for a modern mechanical key switch (about 15mm) it appears comparable.
Why a modern mechanical key switch? What evidence do we have that this device would have had a mechanical keyboard?
In fact, because of the way that the mock-ups are constructed, the keyboards actually appear to be silicone rubber keypads or some other type of membrane switch keypad. And some consideration was given to the idea that a custom rubber keypad could be fabricated for the project. However, there are a few factors which led me to believe that mechanical switches...