Burning Chrome

You want a good project that combines multiple disciplines, gives you something useful in the end, and will certainly wow the muggles? Or do you simply need a custom rig with which to “jack in” to “cyberspace”? How about building your own luggable, portable, computer with some style — your own cyberdeck?

Coming to you from the fertile world that William Gibson created in “Neuromancer”, “Count Zero”, and “Mona Lisa Overdrive”, cyberdecks were the portable computers that the heroes and anti-heroes roaming the Sprawl would use to connect to what was essentially the Internet. Since we’re already living in the era where large portions of the world are controlled by vast corporations, we spend our entire lives online, and machine intelligence is poised to become sentient, you might as well get building.

We’ve seen a number of great examples of cyberdeck builds, and they’re all special in their own way, but there are common features uniting them all. First, you’ll need a screen, a portable computer brain, some batteries, and a nice keyboard. The good news is that all of the above have become eminently available, even inexpensive, in the last few years.

Discipline #1 is that of the case modder. You’re designing your ideal portable computer, after all. It’s got to look good, and we don’t mean that black, boxy ThinkPad look. If you’ve got a 3D printer, and maybe a willingness to spray paint, the world is your oyster here.

Discipline #2 is that of the keyboard builder. You’re not going to want to enter the Matrix with anything less than a pleasant typing interface. Again, 3D printing, laser-cutting, or CNC milling your own keyplate and building yourself a keyboard from scratch is a viable option, but there are tons of Bluetooth and USB keyboard options if you want to cut corners, or find one you really like.

Discipline #3 is the software hacker. Putting together exactly the right set of software, setting up the system to do what you want, and getting that sweet background screen just right are the last steps to making yourself at home in Cyberspace.

With so much latitude to introduce your own design ideas into your bespoke luggable, no two will be alike. Mine’s going to have programming ports for every microcontroller I frequently use, a decent speaker, maybe a variable power supply, and probably some reasonable amount of LED bling. What’s going to be on yours?

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45 thoughts on “Burning Chrome

  1. “If you’ve got a 3D printer, and maybe a willingness to spray paint, the world is your oyster here.”

    Funny expression, though I’m not sure what it means.
    My experience with oysters is that I don’t like the taste nor the feeling in my mouth while eating, that is if I was able to get them open, the ones that did open also had no pearl inside (so that was a dream shattered), because they weren’t cheap. and oh… if one goes bad and you don’t know it, but still eat it, you can feel very sick some time later. And finally, the next day the trash bin has a really funny awkward smell that seemed to attract all sorts of unwanted animals and insects.

    So when people say “the world is your oyster” I have very mixed feelings.
    On the other hand, I have bad experiences with 3D printing and spray paint as well, fortunately many good ones too.

    1. And then there’s people who are deathly allergic to them. I haven’t actually tried them, but given I don’t like mussels, cockles, whelks, shrimp etc, I can’t say I’m exactly eager to.

      1. Unless you are allergic much like mushrooms you might be suprised if you try the right one prepared correctly – its hit and miss but if its cooked right even somebody who thinks they dislike em might find some varieties and cooking methods delightful. Know I did. Still wouldn’t go out of my way to eat them often. But as a change from your usual meals…

        (Does have to be said though finding out you like one style could take some time and be a less than pleasant experience so why bother?)

        1. ” much like mushrooms you might be surprised if you try the right one prepared correctly”

          We won’t be winning many “Funghi:- Master Eukaryote” converts with the tasteless styrofoam they sell in North American supermarkets these days that’s for sure.

    2. Oyster taste varies greatly depending on where they’re from. Try to find somewhere that offers multiple varieties and try one of each.

      The texture doesn’t change though, so if that’s a deal breaker for you then maybe you shouldn’t…

    3. The expression is meant to refer to how easy it is to open an oyster, though yes the pearl inside works quite differently between fairy tail and reality.
      So it means you have easy access to all the world has to offer vs the down trodden who must work for it.

      Your experience finding them difficult to open may very well confuse the meaning. I do hope the symbolic analogy there doesn’t hold true for other aspects in your life!
      All of the other details you mention weren’t really part of what Shakespeare was referring, aka that’s taking the analogy too far. Although the oyster being likened to the world, it is certainly true there are bad things in the world as well.

        1. How about some examples of “Since we’re already living in the era where large portions of the world are controlled by vast corporations”. Is that in terms of cyberspace? Or real estate? Maybe considering Putin and Xi as corporate bosses?

          1. Yeah, like what? I write that we’re already living in the Neuromancer/Bladerunner/Matrix dystopian future, and people go on about oysters…

            Which I enjoy tremendously, honestly. Particularly those from the Pacific NW.

      1. I know nothing of fairy tail but live and let live I say. I hope Black Peter doesn’t stuff me in a sack and take me to Spain because I still need to tend my own garden.

      2. It’s funny, because if we trace the expression back to Shakespear, it had violent connotation, the oyster, in that case, being forced open with a sword to give up its treasure.

    4. honestly getting a respectable paint job out of a rattle can is 1000X harder than getting sick by snot wad on a shell. yea we all paint shit, it looks good in photo’s and its always crap IRL unless you have been painting cars for 3 generations at a dedicated shop (and even 50% of those look like an old suitcase)

      so maybe the expression should be changed to, the world is your marginally acceptable paint job cause its more expensive per ounce than a freaking oyster that generates perls

      1. Sounds like you either get really garbage rattle cans or don’t know how to use them. With enough patience and keeping the layers very thin you can get great results – though with all painting its the prep that matters hugely.

        I do vastly prefer an airbrush to the rattle can though – you can tweak and control the process much more which does make for an easier time – you can even avoid stencils and large amounts of masking if you have really good airbrush control – I don’t have it nailed but can get away with out masking anything but the lines that want to be razor sharp or features too small for the nozzle (Do still tend to mask well however – as it makes the painting relaxing rather than high concentration required).

        1. Funnily enough, the best rattle can jobs I did ever, came out of the $1.99 a can Walmart general purpose paint (That they don’t have any more grrrr) However, this might have been building on numerous fails (well disappointments rather than complete disasters) some previous successes etc.

          Quick tips: 1) Shake the can, shake it until your arm falls off, then use the other arm, then get your first arm stitched back on again and shake it again. No seriously, shake it about 3 times longer than you think you ought to. If it takes 2 minutes of shaking to even hear the ball rattle, that 2 mins didn’t count. 2) Keep the motion in smooth linear sweeps, this means not arms length because then you’re high each end of the swing and the opposite edges will get too little paint and the middle too much. Have enough bend in your arm to be able to follow a track that’s 3 dimensionally linear not just in one plane. 3) hit the button just before you sweep onto the object, it throws splatters with the first squirt. Keep it depressed until you’re actually off the other end. 4) lay stripes down one direction, about 8″ back with steady speed, about 4″ wide, then go 90 degrees and lay stripes that way, and call that one coat. It should be thin, you should see the base colour through it still. 5) if you’re a perfectionist wait until this is perfectly hard dry and sand it with 200 to 2000 grit in stages taking 90% of it off, so you’ll have to do this 20 more times at least, if you just want it “pretty good” then wait until tacky dry (~20 min depends on paint, temperature etc) then apply another coat same as first, it should “wet out” and self level without running if you let it dry enough but not too much. 6) wait again for it to get tacky dry, might take a little longer than first time, then apply 3rd coat, lightly, same as before. You should have good coverage by now, for a lot of purposes, this can be your final coat, but if you want it a bit tougher, apply a couple more, but remember to wait long enough for the tacky dry stage, which may take progressively longer by a few mins, as solvent just sucks back into paint that’s there or instead of all going to surface to evaporate. 7) if you’re getting runs, it’s either because you’re laying too much paint on one pass, i.e. too close, not moving quick enough or too close together passes, or you didn’t wait long enough between coats. Be wary of slowing down as you complete a pass, that will do it too.

          Well that turned longish, and there’s a billion quibble points but that’s to give ppl something to build on with basic rattle canning.

          1. Thanks for all your “technique” info. The only part i disagree with is the “good results from a cheap can.” I painted an old 6×4 trailer with cheap rattle cans (shaken well, of course) and there just wasn’t much pigment in there. It seemed to be all solvent and no opaque stuff or colour. It looks like crap, though fortunately I had put down a few cans of rust converter first, ao the teailer haan’t rusted yet.

            We’re doing a great job of sidetracking this cuberdeck thread :-)

  2. I’m not sold on a cyberdeck the usual way – I think the portable decent keyboard is nice, Loved the idea of programming ports and decent speaker idea. However It all falls downs at the screen for me – seems like they are screaming out for a AR screen so its big enough to really see! Project Northstar the open source AR concept is in a box on my pile of to do’s at the moment..

    Or failing that one of the really large Epaper displays (2 colour preferable) would be nice. Perhaps with the tiny LCD these things commonly have for video.

      1. I wish some new portables would come out with what the OLPC had – backlit colour when you need it, high resolution, low power B&W when you don’t.

        Or just sell the screen so I can build my own and hack it into a psion or something!

        The secondary epaper screen might be a more modern take on this (or get around the patent on the OLPC screen?)

        1. That was a pretty good display. It was cool that you could use it outside in sunlight, but it could have had better contrast inside where I (for better or worse) do most of my computing.

          Can’t wait for full-color, high-res, high-refresh ePaper. In my flying car…

    1. There ought to be portable bluetooth ePaper slabs with battery in. Sitting on the stand it’s a monitor, now I’m just gonna carry it to the bench to compare stuff…

      BT would not present much of a latency issue beyond that of the displays themselves I would think. Could do wifi for higher rates, but thought you could do BT with less power.

      1. I wasn’t thinking wireless but with epaper being relatively slow you are right it really shouldn’t matter how its fed data.. I guess you could saturate bluetooth links with framebuffer if pushing the screen near its limits using clever tricks to make it run faster than it really can. But best way to feed an epaper screen text would be as text strings and let its onboard controller sort the rest out(or so it seems to me).. I don’t know of any ePaper slab myself. But if somebody does I’d love to know.

        Its a good point though none of these decks have used Miracast type tech for the screen. And as I understand it lots of hotels etc have that in their rooms.. So give it the little working in the field onboard screen and access to a wide selection of other wifi screen options could work. Assuming wireless broadcasting your screen doesn’t fill you with security related nightmares – very much the opposite of Tempested…

    2. That’s certainly an area where reality has had trouble keeping up with fiction. The “real” cyberdecks from Gibson’s work all had VR interfaces, so they didn’t need to have traditional displays outside of maybe some kind of status information.

      But in practice, we aren’t quite there. Some of the build’s we’ve seen have used things like RC FPV goggles, but those aren’t exactly the ideal for getting any real work done. Neither is a 7 inch LCD, of course. But it’s an improvement at least.

      Surely the display side of things is where we’re likely to see the most improvement over the next few years.

  3. If you’re trying to “wow the Muggles” you’re probably not going to have much in the way of actual human companionship until you’re maybe 60. If you’re already older than that, well, that’s just scary. Buy some oysters. Put them in a little tank. Listen carefully. They’re real quiet and maybe only you can hear them. Do whatever they tell you.

        1. Maybe, it’s inside out though, humans inside, machines outside, vs human world outside, machine world inside. I guess that more mystical stuff in Mona Lisa Overdrive definitely had parallels. I saw more resemblance to Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash metaverse, if the Terminator timeline came after it.

        1. Something like HP has to take his wand of kill -9 and cloak of hidepid=2 and prevent evil wizard Torvalds from embedding a portion of his soul in the kernel. Plus Hermione does the heavy thinking and Ron is kinda there.

  4. The cyberdeck discussion reminded me that I have an old Fingerworks Touchstream keyboard in storage somewhere — I got it when a lab at the university I worked at got rid of it, shortly after the company was bought by Apple to get their multitouch tech.

    A lot of the keyboards in the cyberdeck world are focusing on mechanical keys, and this guy’s sort of the opposite — if you’ve never seen one, imagine two paperback-sized trackpads with key outlines printed on them, joined at a Natural Keyboard-style angle. It’s typing on a flat plane, which takes some getting used to, but there’s some give to the surface and the thing does have some marvelous chording gestures — including an Emacs mode! — that made it a lot of fun to use. If I’m remembering right, the surfaces pop out of the frame and can fold up, so building a cyberdeck around it could be really interesting.

    Meanwhile, my go-to portable Raspberry Pi solution for a few years has been the Motorola Atrix 4G Laptop Dock, which they intended as a way to make a smartphone into a laptop by snapping it into micro-USB and micro-HDMI plugs on the back of what’s basically a combined 12″ HDMI monitor, keyboard, touchpad, USB hub, and battery pack; with some adapter cable shenanigans, you can hook a Pi 2 or 3 up and velcro it to the back. (It’s not _quite_ enough amperage out on the battery to run a Pi 3B reliably, sadly.) The keyboard on mine is starting to go — certain keys take too much pressure to hit, so it’s difficult to, say, enter a password reliably — so maybe this is a good time to use those parts and build a new toy from them. Hmm…

    1. I so wanted a Touchstream keyboard back in the day. I was a poor student when I first found out about them and when I next checked and had remotely enough money they’d gone out of business. I don’t think I’d want one now, I’m pretty happy with my mechanical keys.

    2. I would love to try one.. But I find it hard to believe that a touch surface of any sort will really give a good typing experience. Haptic feedback is just so important. Even those hateful little blackberry style keyboards with keys so small you have to be gnomish to use easily give great feedback and are vastly preferable to the on screen touch keyboards of modern phones IMO..

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