Cool hacks: DIY cellphones and a magic trackpad rethink

There's something of the hacker in all IT people ... there has to be because you spend so much of your time figuring out how things work and how to fix said things when they break (which is usually far too often).

It follows, then, that most of us are also fascinated by cool hacker-style projects that deliver solutions in unexpected and novel ways. I just found a site, High Low Tech run by the High-Low Tech Group at the MIT Media Lab, that has a load of cool, hacker-style, craft-oriented projects.

The project that first caught my eye was the DIY Cellphone. This is a fully working albeit basic cellphone in a veneered plywood enclosure and so ugly that you wouldn't want to be seen with it in public unless you were wearing a pocket pen protector.

The project creators explain: "By creating and sharing open-source designs for the phone's circuit board and case, we hope to encourage a proliferation of personalized and diverse mobile phones. Freed from the constraints of mass production, we plan to explore diverse materials, shapes, and functions. We hope that the project will help us explore and expand the limits of do-it-yourself (DIY) practice. How close can a homemade project come to the design of a cutting edge device? What are the economics of building a high-tech device in small quantities? Which parts are even available to individual consumers? What's required for people to customize and build their own devices?"

The circuitry, case design, and software are all available on the GitHub repository. So, for $150 in parts and a bit of labor you could have your own geekphone.

Other projects on the site include a Piezo Powered Tambourine which I don't know how I've managed to live without, and Animated Vines.

Talking of hacks, I've also just found a cool commercial product that's a cool hack on the Apple Magic Trackpad.

The Magic Trackpad is a terrific input device though I find that placing it next to the Apple Wireless Keyboard -- which is what looks like the elegant way to arrange these devices -- is, at least for me, a recipe for disaster as my large, clumsy hands occasionally brush the Trackpad resulting in unexpected and annoying relocations of the mouse. I now keep the Trackpad separate from the keyboard which makes finger fumbling mistakes far less likely.

A product I found, the Mobee Magic Numpad, makes the Magic Trackpad much more useful by adding new functionality to it.

The Magic Numpad consists of an OS X application as well as three plastic overlays that fit exactly over the top surface of the Magic Trackpad. Each overlay has a different layout of "pads" that act as virtual keys and are mapped to various functions so you choose the one that best suits your workflows.

An application that you download from Mobee's Web site handles the mapping of touches on the Trackpad virtual keys to the execution of the virtual key functions. You enable "numpad mode" through the Mobee application that lives in the system bar.

The simplest overlay defines four configurable virtual keys at the top edge that, from right to left, default to a key that disables the "numpad mode" (this returns the Touchpad back to its entire surface being a pointing device), a key that launches the OS X calculator, and the keys F17, and F16.

Below those virtual keys are more that make up a numeric entry and basic mathematical operations. The remaining pad real estate can be used as normal to control the mouse. The other overlays add more programmable virtual keys as well as a number of fixed keys for things like cursor control and editing functions.

On the simpler, more compact, layouts the areas not taken up by virtual keys still allow for normal mouse control but, because you have to disable the single and multi-finger tap gestures (done through the OS X trackpad control panel applet), you lose some normal trackpad functionality.

You can leave the configurable virtual keys to be whatever their default is or select them to act as a predefined function key, launch an application, or execute a keyboard shortcut (such as CTL+V or CMD+Del). You can also write on the overlays so you can remember what the configurable virtual keys are to do.

My only complaint with the entire product is that the overlays are printed in white on clear film so while they look consistent with the whole Apple aesthetic they can be hard to read in some lighting conditions (white on silver doesn't have much contrast). However, get your lighting right and this is a cool hack. For $30 the Mobee Magic Numpad gets a Gearhead rating of 4 out of 5.

What great hacks have you come across recently? Tell Gibbs at gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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