The Lego Keyboard is finally complete!

6.07.2006

Have you ever had one of those moments where a completely random thought enters your mind and you think, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”? This happened to me one day as I walked past a co-worker’s cubicle and pondered what playful thing I could do that might poke at him in the right way to make him laugh.

For any chance of success at something like this you need to have an idea of what your target – for lack of a better word – loves. Said coworker had mentioned his former Lego collection with fondness enough that it immediately came to mind, and I decided that one day he would arrive to find some piece of his computer had been replaced with one made of Lego Bricks.

The peripheral of choice: a keyboard. It seemed like something that would lend itself well to the medium and I was sure somebody on the web had done this already that could provide some pointers. Unfortunately that assumption appeared incorrect. I found case mods, mouse mods, and USB mods, but no keyboard. I found an entire Lego computer, but none of the parts were functional and I wanted mine to actually work. So I set out on the project knowing there were two huge strikes against me:

1) Any Lego building I ever did was according to the assembly instructions included with my brother’s spaceships

2) I didn’t know how a keyboard worked and, unless you count the one I tossed out a 5th story dorm window, had never taken one apart.

Yep, this was going to be one heck of a project. Here’s how I tackled it.

Step 1: Understand the Keyboard

It seems every keyboard out there these days has extra buttons all over it to control music and launch applications. After visiting a few of the chain stores I picked up a Manhattan Enhanced PS/2 keyboard at a small shop in the local mall for about $12.


I couldn’t wait to crack it open, and when I finally did a bunch of little pieces flew at me. It looked like I had three main components to work with - the touchpad, the plastic bubble things (yes, that is a technical term), and the cord.


Step 2: Prototyping

Next I visited my friendly neighbourhood Toys ‘R Us in search of blocks and a building surface. I came home with a red Lego tub and one grey base plate. I put all of the plastic bubbles into a container and placed the touchpad on the Lego base. It wasn’t wide enough, but was longer than I needed and could therefore be cut to fit. The two pieces would then be attached using other Lego bricks. The thick row of blocks in the picture below served as my guide while cutting the board.

The touch pad didn’t line up exactly with the bumps on the plate. I found the red and yellow roof pieces were the perfect shape for locking securely to the board while still holding the keypad down so it didn’t slip.

I also built a few sample keys and balanced them on the bubbles.

Step 3: Keys

Once I convinced myself that this thing might actually work I constructed all of the keys to make sure I had enough pieces. Square keys received a single for a base as shown above. When I ran out of those pieces I used cylinders and, in the final case, three round flat red pieces stacked onto each other. Larger keys received 1x2s or squares.

When I placed them on the original keyboard I had a colorful mess. I decided to color code the keys according to the following schema:

Letters – Blue
Numbers – White
Punctuation – Green
F-keys and Arrows – Yellow
Windows – Black
Others – Red

Step 4: Power

At this point the only part I hadn’t figured out was the cord. In the original keyboard a black backing piece sandwiched part of the touchpad between itself and a small circuit board, then was fastened to the top of the case with a pair of screws.

I had hoped I could attach these using the Lego flowers, but soon discovered that the sensors on the board and the touchpad have to be pressed together tightly for all of the keys to work. My next failed attempt was to remove the plastic pieces from the original board for the screws to be put into. The final solution was the 68 cent purchase of a pair of screws, nuts, and bolts from the local hardware store.

Step 5: Initial Assembly

To keep the touch pad level a hole needed to be cut into the Lego base wide enough to fit the bar screwed into the circuit board.

It is at this point that I cut the excess grey plate away from the bottom of my assembly and decided to attach it to the back. This gave the base a bit more strength and, coupled with the hole, provided a natural crevice for the bar to rest in. I placed the touchpad back on the plate and built up the shell to hold it in place, cutting into one brick to allow the cord to pass through. The result looked like this:


Step 6: Final Assembly

Placement of the keys is important as there’s a limited area on the touchpad where a press will be registered. I plugged the keyboard into my desktop so that I could test each key as I created it. I began by gluing the plastic bubbles to the touch pad.

Next, I applied glue to the bottom pieces of the keys and attached them to the bubbles. I ran into a few different problems at this stage.

1) Something about the 2x2 squares didn’t register the key press. Once I swapped them for a pair of 1x2 rectangles they seemed to work fine.

2) The return key didn’t work when pressed on the top portion of the ‘L’. I added more Lego bricks to the bottom so that if pressure is still applied after it has hit the board the stroke will register.

3) The space bar was wobbly. Attaching a spring to one side of it helped make it more stable.

4) The light for the scroll lock doesn't work, though it's clear something happens when the key is pressed. I managed to freeze myself out of a number of Linux terminals during testing.

Step 7: Finishing Touches

Leaving the brown circuit board exposed didn’t look quite right. The Lego pieces I attached to it and put over the lights are the only other ones in the project to be glued.

I also took advantage of the bumpy surface of the plate section I had attached to the bottom and used it to connect a pair of fences to prop up the entire board.

The pictures don’t quite do it justice, but the final product looks something like this:







Final Parts List:

1 Manhattan Enhanced PS/2 Keyboard
1 Lego X-Large Grey Plate (#628)
1 Lego Special Edition Creative Building Tub (#6092)
1 Tube Krazy Glue
1 X-Acto Knife (#2 blade)
2 Machine Screws
2 Nuts
2 Washers

Other Notes:

- Most serious Lego builders will not use glue on their creations. I tried to keep to that as best as I could, but it was unavoidable in some cases. Lego blocks on top of other Lego blocks have not been glued. Lego blocks on top of original keyboard components have been.

- The current construction of the keys is a bit flimsy and they tend to flex as fingers are slid from one to the next. It would take some careful placement and cutting, but I think this could be fixed using a second grey plate. If the holes were in the right locations it could be snapped into place around the support pieces before the key caps (the part the fingers rest on) are attached. This would prevent them from moving side to side and only allow an up/down motion. It would also better protect the touchpad.

- A spring might be more useful on the Enter key than the thick stack of blocks I used.

- When the warnings on the glue bottle say to use it in a well ventilated area, they aren’t kidding.

- SAFETY TIP: Some Lego pieces can be cut into easier than others. The clear 1x2 rectangle was the most difficult to take a chunk out of and the grey plate was the easiest. I somehow managed to get through this without cutting myself, though a few times I did conclude that people who live alone should not play with extremely sharp knives. The more detailed cutting will also pop up a lot of little plastic fragments. I recommend safety glasses just in case.

Conclusion:

I dubbed myself a total loser when I initially took this on, but I think it may be the coolest random project I’ve done to date. It’s not perfect, but it does work and most of the bricks are reusable. Given the strikes I mentioned before I consider both of these things a huge accomplishment.

11 Comments:

At 07 June, 2006 09:49, Anonymous Laura S. said...

You ARE just that cool! =)

 
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What did your co-worker think?

 
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