The Ulfberht+ Cyberdeck

A powerful, versatile portable computer with striking design.

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This was a project to build a custom laptop computer that combined versatility, power and ergonomic elements. Centered around a highly efficient x86 motherboard with an Ergodox keyboard and 3D printed chasis, this deck has been my daily driver for several years, only recently achieving its full incarnation.

This project was born from a place of frustration with previous computers I'd owned. Why were they all so finnicky about their power inputs? Why did companies give up on laptops with long battery life the instant iPads hit the market? Why couldn't you use your laptop screen as a monitor?

Why don't I make my own laptop?

Of course, if I'm starting from scratch, why not improve a few other things as well? Put a better keyboard on there. Give it an external coax connection for the wifi antenna to get some real range out of it.

And why not make it look cool as hell, while I'm at it? Something like the cyberdecks from Neuromancer.

The first generation was a box that could contain and protect all of the components and give me a framework for seeing how they worked together. My printer wasn't big enough for a single print, so I designed it in quadrants joined by dovetails.

A tiny screen is beneficial for battery life, and the Fatshark Transformer had the benefit of also allowing for 5.8ghz TV signal for FPV and mounting in an HMD.

Of course...that screen crapped the bed pretty quick. And the antennae jutting out the back snagged on anything, making it very difficult to transport. And the big, thick box under the keyboard made it the least ergonomic computer ever made. But I still used it for a LONG time. But it was always a stepping stone toward greater things.

Those things became possible with a larger printer. I could build a more complex case without worrying about the structural and aesthetic defects created by gluing it together from multiple fragments. And that meant I could finally incorporate one of my wishlist items: a split keyboard.

As big as my printer was, it wasn't quite big enough to print the whole thing in one piece--but given that I often use a Wacom tablet as my primary monitor for drawing, and hovering my arm over a standard keyboard to reach it is a major pain, why not make the computer able to split, so that the tablet can be between the keyboard instead of behind it?

Taking inspiration from my previous build, I used dovetails to rigidly join the righthand keyboard to the rest of the computer. 

And it was, ultimately, fantastic...with a few caveats. The PLA I'd used just couldn't handle the exhaust heat from the motherboard when it was under load. And as much as I loved the Ergodox, it was hard to find keycaps for it. It was also difficult to find a boost-buck converter small enough to fit in the battery area of the case, putting the goal of power flexibility a bit further from reach than I'd like.

In spite of that, I was gratified to see that other folks online were as excited by the project as I was. Hackaday published a complimentary article, what may well be the high point of my life, William Gibson, the author most directly influential in inspiring this project's aesthetic, said it was his "favorite" cyberdeck at the time.

But even such flattering laurels should not be rested upon.

So, I printed a new case in ABS, which can stand up to the heat. I designed and laser-etched a keymap for the ergodox, compatible with English, Swedish and Japanese, the three languages I speak ᵖᵒᵒʳˡʸ. 

I added the OpenUPS battery management system which finally opens up the breadth of power inputs that were one of the main things I craved from a computer--6-30v, meaning I can power it off of everything from a car cigarette lighter to my backpacking solar panel to the 24v DC power rail in my off-grid shop. Sadly, the board took up enough space that I had to sacrifice 40% of my onboard battery capacity.

I also decided to do a writeup of my project...but not a boring, modern one like you're currently reading.

One of my favorite things about books like Neuromancer and Snow Crash was that they used the names of realworld electronics manufacturers in their futuristic settings, lending a feeling of verisimilitude to their stories....

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  • Upgrading the マウスアシスタント

    Tinfoil_Haberdashery06/22/2021 at 16:21 0 comments

    In its current iteration, the Ulfberht+ has two methods of pointer input: a keyboard mod key, and a handheld bluetooth trackball. Bluetooth is useful--even viatal--due to the limited number of USB ports available for cords or dongles. The fact that it's handheld makes it easier to use in situations where work surface is at a premium, such as in a car or on a plane.

    This device is quite ergonomic and feature-rich, but falls down in one vital area: while it has a "center click"--that is, a scroll wheel which can be depressed for panning input, the position of the scroll wheel relative to the primary trackball means that the cursor can't actually be moved while the scroll wheel is depressed, since both must be actuated with the thumb.

    This is important, since for much of the work I do, whether it's CAD, GIS or graphic design, the center-click pan feature is indispensable. 

    The mouse in question is similar in form factor to my Oculus VR controllers, which have an intriguing feature--a button on the side which can be activated by the middle finger, usually simulating a grabbing action in games.

    This control method seemed intuitive and plausible to implement in the I did. I opened up the trackball, soldered a new micro switch in parallel with the existing one that detects the scroll wheel being depressed, drilled a small hole in the side of the casing and used a 3D-printing pen to plastic-weld it in place.

    The result is clean, practical and sturdy--you can see the small plastic nubbin just under my middle finger on the side of the device, below the power switch. It works flawlessly and looks practically OEM. Now I can CAD on the go!

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Brian Whitsett wrote 06/21/2021 at 16:55 point

Absolutely Gorgeous.

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Tinfoil_Haberdashery wrote 06/22/2021 at 05:09 point

Thanks! I've really enjoyed building it.

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Tom Nardi wrote 06/20/2021 at 04:19 point

Fantastic build, great to see this here on IO.

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