Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Using Steam Controller as Photoshop shortcut keypad

dont mind me im jus passin by

So I've been using Razer Nostromo (Formerly Belkin N52te) for a good part of last 10 years to control Photoshop functions to save time. It worked great for a while. You could quickly access various Photoshop shortcuts at the tip of your left hand while your drawing hand freely expressed whatever it wanted all it wanted.

Well that was until Razer pooped itself and decided to take the scroll wheel off their latest keypads, namely Tartarus and Orbweaver, and discontinuing their old stuff.

The scroll wheel was for me what made Nostromo very usable for this specific purpose. It made zooming in and out of the canvas effortless, shaving time off otherwise the tedious process of clicking keys again and again to zoom in and zoom out.

And recently my Nostromo -which I am on my fourth- started shitting itself as keys started getting stiff and stop responding. I quickly remedied the situation tearing the unit apart and adding a layer of paper in between the keys and the rubber contacts. For now, that fixed the problem but there was no guarantee that the unit would last forever, since the last three units all failed at the scroll wheel which isn't so repair-able (and also crucial).

I've been looking for a keypad alternative very much since the first one broke down and in recent years I have set my eyes on Steam Controllers but it had few hurdles for it to be usable.

I had ordered 2 of these about an year ago but then I shelved them for a while since at the time the driver development was incomplete and buggy. Well, it's still buggy and incomplete but it has become much more usable. That removed a hurdle out of the way.

Second was the position of the controller. I deemed the controller unusable held in hand, since you have to draw with one of your hands. Lack of button accessibility hurt its usability when held in just one hand. If I laid them on a surface it also created another problem. An extra height was created on its back so that made the hand position difficult. Also the controller had to be stationary but the controller alone laying on the table does not stay still.

It had to be cradled.

So I made a cradle.

I first prototyped the cradle using Floof (soft, snow-like clay) which is very malleable, and easy to use. I carefully applied masking tapes to the controller so the clay doesn't get into controller's cracks and pressed down on the clay, letting it dry before taking it off.

I tried few different positions and in the end I settled down on upside-down position with a second controller sideways adjacent to the primary one (as pictured below). I made sure it felt comfortable in my hand for prolonged and sustained use.
These shortcuts were assigned after testing the key bindings a bit. they are subject to change over time as I find better ways to optimize. All haptics are set at max and unreachable keys are unassigned. F4 was set to recorded actions since Photoshop lacks native keys for 'Mirror' function.

So once the Floof dried a bit I just applied liquid epoxy over them, reinforcing them with epoxy clay until it was sturdy enough to dig the floof out behind and washing them in water. And then I carefully sanded them so they fit well and didn't rattle around. I finished them with gluegun coating all over - although I should have gone with resin spray or something. But nonetheless it works well so I'm not complaining.

And it's been working pretty great since. I have way more access to variety of keys and functions compared to before when I used Nostromo. Since all the keys and buttons are shaped differently (compared to grid-like Nostromo beyond few thumb buttons), it's far easier accessing them without looking.

The only problem is the 10 years worth of muscle memory which only time will solve.

This time I am hoping Steam Controller sticks around for a long while so I won't have to find the next shortcut assistant. I have ordered more of them to put them on the backup and I'm crossing my fingers Valve is planning to support these for a very long time.

Few other things to note:

-You can keep adding multiple controllers if you need more functions bound to buttons. They can be bound separately and automatically change their bindings to the program you use (if the program is added on steam).

-You can use modifier buttons to assign different functions to the same button (which I'm not using to avoid confusion). Also you can set action sets which is like shifting through different presets.

-You can save your key bindings on the cloud on your Steam account.

-You can add Photoshop (or programs of your choice) to Steam library as a non-steam game and have separate key bindings for them instead of using desktop configuration.

-You can use your Steam Controllers both wirelessly or wired (and battery free).

-Turn spin friction off for more 1 to 1 tactile feel. Also set haptics at max for everything that's bound to touchpads.

-Sometimes the config menu bugs out and it can get difficult setting combination keys like Control + Key. Delete key, back out and back in. Repeat until it works. It's really buggy. It works well once you set it.

More quickies to come until I am better in shape and accustomed to the new controller.