Layers are an integral part of Kaleidoscope, but a part that is perhaps harder to master than many other things in the firmware. On these pages, we’ll make an attempt at explaining layers, what you can do with them, how, and a few common use-cases.

We’ll start with a quick use-case guide, before diving deeper into explanations!

How do I…?

How do I switch to a layer, so I can type multiple keys from there?

You can use LockLayer(n) or MoveToLayer(n), depending on whether you want other layers to be active at the same time or not. LockLayer(n) allows you to build up a stack of layers, while with MoveToLayer(n) only the selected layer will be active, without any stacking.

How do I do make layer switching act similar to modifiers?

If you want the layer switch to be active only while the key is held, like in the case of modifiers, the ShiftToLayer(n) method does just that.

While switching layers this way is similar to how modifiers work, there are subtle differences. For a longer explanation, see later.

Layer theory

First of all, the most important thing to remember is that layers are like a piece of foil, you can place many of them on top of each other, and see through uncovered parts. In other words, you can have multiple layers all active at the same time! As we’ll see a few paragraphs later, this can be a very powerful thing.

To better explain how this works in practice, lets look at what layer-related keys we can place on the keymap first. Armed with that knowledge, we’ll then explore a few use-cases.

Layer keys

  • LockLayer(n): Locking a layer will activate it when the key toggles on, and the layer will remain active until unlocked (with UnlockLayer(n) or by pressing LockLayer(n) again), even if we release the layer key meanwhile. Think of it like a Caps lock or Num lock key.

  • ShiftToLayer(n): Unlike LockLayer, this only activates the layer until the key is held. Once the key is released, the layer deactivates. This behaviour is very similar to that of modifiers.

  • MoveToLayer(n): Moving to a layer is very similar to locking it, the only exception is that moving disables all other layers, so only the moved to layer will be active. This allows us to have a less powerful, but simpler way of dealing with layers, as we’ll see below.

  • Key_KeymapNext_Momentary / Key_KeymapPrevious_Momentary: These activate the next or the previous layer, momentarily, like ShiftToLayer(n). What it considers next, is one layer higher than the currently highest active layer. Similarly, previous is one below the currently highest active layer.

Use cases

Locked layers

Locked layers are most useful when you’ll want to spend more time on the target layer. One such case is the numpad: when using it, we usually want to enter longer numbers, or use the mathematical operator keys as well. Just imagine hitting a layer lock key, and the right half of your keyboard turning into a numpad! It’s closer than the numpad on traditional full-size keyboards, thus less hand movement is required!

Shifted layers

There are many great examples for shifted layers, such as a symbols layer. Let’s say we have a number of often used symbols which we want easy access to, preferably near the home row. For example, the various parentheses, brackets and the like are often used in programming. Having them on the home row is incredibly convenient. In most cases, we only need this layer for a very short time, for a symbol or two. As such, locking the layer would be counter-productive. Instead, we use a layer shift key, like if it was a modifier.

As a concrete example, let’s imagine a small, ortholinear keyboard, like the Planck. On the bottom row, on the right side of the space bar, we’d have a layer shift key (lets call that Fn for now), that takes us to the symbol layer. On the symbol layer, we’d have {, }, [, ], (, and ) on the home row. To input {, we’d press Fn + d, for example. This is still two presses, very much like Shift + [, but the keys are more convenient, because we use stronger fingers to press them.

Another - and perhaps an even better - example would be a navigation layer, with cursor keys laid over WASD. The reason why this would be a better example, is because in this case, we often want to use modifiers along with the cursor keys, such as Shift or Control. With a shifted layer, if we have transparent keys at positions where the modifiers are on the base layer, we don’t have to repeat the modifier layout on the shifted layer! This makes it easier to experiment with one’s layout, because if we move modifiers, we only have to do that on one layer.

Moving to layers

Moving to a layer is very similar to locking one. The only difference is that moving disables all other layers. This in turn, has consequences: we can’t return to the previous layer state by repeating the same key. Unlocking a layer that has been activated by MoveToLayer(n) will instead cause Kaleidoscope to fall back to the default base layer.

The major advantage of moving to a layer - as opposed to locking one - is the cognitive load. With moving, there is no transparency.[^1] There is only one layer active at any given time. It’s a simpler concept to grasp.

Layers, transparency, and how lookup works

The thing that confuses many people about layers is that they can have transparency. What even is a transparent key? Remember the first paragraphs: layers are like a foil. They’re see-through, unless parts of it are obstructed. They’re like overrides. Any layer you place on top of the existing stack, will override keys in the layers below.

When you have multiple layers active, to figure out what a key does, the firmware will first look at the key position on the most recently activated layer, and see if there’s a non-transparent key there. If there is, it will use that. If there isn’t, it will start walking backwards on the stack of active layers to find the highest one with a non-transparent key. The first one it finds is whose key it will use. If it finds none, then a transparent key will act like a blank one, and do nothing.[^1]

It is important to note that transparent keys are looked up from active layers only, from most recently activated to least. Lets consider that we have three layers, 0, 1, and 2. On a given position, we have a non-transparent key on layers 0 and 1, but the same position is transparent on layer 2. If we have layer 0 and 2 active, the key will be looked up from layer 0, because layer 2 is transparent. If we activate layer 1 too, it will be looked up from there, since layer 1 is higher in the stack than layer 0. In this case, since we activated layer 1 most recently, layer 2 wouldn’t even be looked at.

As we just saw, another important factor is that layers are ordered by their order of activation. Whether you activate layer 1 or 2 first, matters. Lets look at another example: we have three layers, 0, 1, and 2. On a given position, we have a non-transparent key on every layer. If we have just layer 0 active, it will be looked up from there. If we activate layer 2, then the firmware will look there first. If we activate layer 1 as well, then - since now layer 1 is the most recently activated layer - the firmware will look the code up from layer 1, without looking at layer 2. It would only look at layer 2 if the key was transparent on layer 1.

[^1]: Except that the base layer is always active implicitly, so if all active layers are transparent for a particular key, its value will come from the base layer.