Bluetooth trackball Mark II

I made a Bluetooth trackball in which all the electronics are inside the ball. The ball is the entire trackball. Here it is in action:

Inside the ball there's a microcontroller and a set of sensors that together with some clever algorithms allow the microcontroller to know the ball's absolute orientation in 3D. When the ball is rotated, it sends the appropriate commands to the computer over Bluetooth to move the mouse cursor. Oh, and the keyboard in the video is a completely separate USB device, it's only used for mouse clicks and doesn't interact with the ball in any way.

This is actually the second iteration of the project. While I was very proud of my previous attempt, it had some undeniable shortcomings and was generally a proof-of-concept quality device. This new version improves upon it in many regards, to the point where I think it could possibly be used on a day to day basis as a replacement for your regular mouse. Specific features include:

  • an nRF52840 chip along with LSM6DS33 accelerometer/gyroscope and LIS3MDL magnetometer
  • a wirelessly rechargeable 500 mAh battery
  • battery level reporting over Bluetooth
  • more robust "up" calibration
  • fully sealed construction allowing for smooth rolling of the ball

I used Adafruit's Feather nRF52840 Sense, it has all the necessary sensors onboard. The other components are a lipo battery, a wireless charging coil and two reed switches, one of which is connected to the board's "En" pin, allowing us to turn the device off with an external magnet, the other is connected to a GPIO pin and is used to trigger the "up" calibration.

The ball is 65 mm in diameter and is made of two 3D printed halves. After putting the electronics inside I glued the two halves together and smoothed the surface by progressing through increasingly finer grits of sandpaper. It rolls pretty smoothly on 2.5 mm zirconium oxide bearing balls, though it's still admittedly not as smooth as a real trackball. I made a few bases in various shapes for the ball to roll on, they are just pieces of 3D printed plastic and don't have any electronics in them.

To charge the battery inside the ball I also made a special base that has a wireless charging coil inside and is powered with USB (or any 5V source). It also has a strategically placed magnet that can be used to trigger one of the two reed switches inside the ball, one will turn the device off, the other allows for setting the logical "up" directon of the trackball (by itself the trackball doesn't know which direction should move the mouse cursor up, so you can set it by putting a magnet near one of the reed switches and rotating the ball around the vertical axis).

The Arduino code and 3D models are on GitHub.


Dactyl Manuform build log

I made an ergonomic split keyboard using the Dactyl Manuform design, specifically the 5x6 version. I'm going to describe the process in the hope that it will be useful to someone considering making one. Here's what the final product looks like:

The Dactyl Manuform, made by Tom Short, is a modification of the original Dactyl keyboard design by Matthew Adereth. Matthew has given an entertaining talk on his design process. It won't really help with building the keyboard, but it has some nice bits on keyboard history in general.

The keyboard is controlled by an Arduino Pro Micro (one in each half) which is running the QMK firmware. This firmware is used by many keyboards, both hand-made and mass-produced and it has several useful features and allows you to customize the keyboard to a much greater extent compared to what's possible on a normal one.

Let's get to it. First we need to decide on the general shape of the keyboard and 3D print the case (or have someone 3D print it for us). I went with 5x6, meaning 5 rows and 6 columns of keys, which translates to having a row for the 0-9 keys, but not for the function keys. The fifth row only has two keys and there's also a 6-key thumb cluster. The 3D models are generated by a Clojure program that outputs a .scad file that is then converted to STL using OpenSCAD. Things like the number of rows and columns and the angles are all configurable in the Clojure code. If you don't want to mess with Clojure, there's an online generator that lets you customize some things and gives you a .scad file.

Here's what it looked like after printing in my case:

I've made some modifications to the design, fixing some issues and changing the holes for the ports to circular ones (so that they can easily be used with panel-mount sockets). I also added a hole for a reset button, which is useful when programming the thing. You can get my STL files on Thingiverse. People often cut the bottom plate from acrylic or even metal, but I just 3D printed it like the rest of the case. I also didn't use heat set inserts and just went with wood screws. Oh, and I really recommend using Cura with tree supports when printing the case. Normally I use PrusaSlicer for everything, but in this case the supports it generated were practically impossible to remove. Printing each half took about 20 hours on my Prusa MK3S.

In addition to the case, here are the parts that I used:

  • Arduino Pro Micro (2x)
  • Gateron Brown switches (64x)
  • DSA profile keycaps (60x 1u and 4x 1.5u)
  • 1N4148 diodes (64x)
  • panel-mount micro USB socket (2x)
  • panel-mount 3.5mm TRS socket (2x)
  • panel-mount momentary switch (2x)
  • some hookup wire, 24 AWG
  • 3x10mm wood screws for attaching the bottom plate (10x)

Then we need to actually wire the thing. To avoid having to use a separate wire going to the controller from every key, a matrix circuit is used, meaning the keys are arranged into rows and columns and there's a diode connected to every key. There's a wiring diagram on Tom Short's repository, but it's somewhat confusingly described as "alternative". The alternative one is the one you want.

First, we put the switches into the case. They are only press-fit mounted so be careful when removing keycaps as you can easily pull the switch out along with the keycap. Here's what it looked like before any soldering:

For the rows I used a method where no additional wire is required and the diode leads are used to connect one key to the next. Pay attention to the orientation of the diodes!

Then I wired the columns (please excuse my poor soldering skills):

Then the rows and columns need to be wired to the right pins on the Arduino:

The 3.5mm socket and the reset button also need to be wired to the Arduino and the whole thing needs to be repeated for the other side:

Then we mount the USB socket, connect it to the Arduino and try to squeeze everything inside the case. In theory the case includes a holder for the Arduino board, but I ended up not using it. With all the wires the board doesn't move around too much. I put some foam between the switches and the Arduino to avoid shorts.

Before attaching the bottom plates, test the thing! Suprisingly in my case it worked the first time with no issues.

A quick note on how the two halves work together. Each half of the keyboard has an Arduino Pro Micro board that's wired to the key matrix. In theory you could just connect each half separately to the computer via USB and it would work. But then we'd end up using two USB ports just for the keyboard and we wouldn't be able to do some clever tricks with the layout that require communication between the two halves. So instead the way it works is only one half is connected to the computer through USB and the two halves are connected to each other using a serial interface - that's what the 3.5mm jacks are for (BTW, don't connect or disconnect the 3.5mm cable while the keyboard is connected over USB):

How does the Arduino know if it's the left or the right half? By default the USB cable is supposed to be connected to the left half so that's how it decides: if USB is connected, then it knows it's the left half, otherwise it's the right half. I didn't like that very much, I wanted the freedom to connect USB to any of the halves. Fortunately that variant is fully supported, you just have to store the left/right identity in EEPROM when flashing the board. To achieve that I commented out the #define MASTER_LEFT in keyboards/handwired/dactyl_manuform/5x6/keymaps/default/config.h and uncommented #define EE_HANDS. Then to flash the left half I do:

make handwired/dactyl_manuform/5x6:default:avrdude-split-left

And to flash the right part I do:

make handwired/dactyl_manuform/5x6:default:avrdude-split-right

When the software tells you to reset the board, you double tap the reset button quickly. If you don't want to mess around with compiling the firmware yourself and generally want to avoid the command line, there's this thing called the QMK Toolbox that has a nice GUI.

And now for the fun part, defining your own layout! There's an online configurator where you can define your key mapping and download a JSON configuration file. Or you can modify the keymap.c file in keyboards/handwired/dactyl_manuform/5x6/keymaps/. If you go the JSON route, just delete the keymap.c file and put a keymap.json file in the same directory. Then flash the firmware using the commands above. Or if you're using the QMK Toolbox, the online generator can compile the thing for you.

I hope this quick report helps someone, have fun if you decide to build one yourself. I really think it's a nice project!


Lean back to scroll

You know those days when lifting a finger to scroll a website seems like to much of an effort? No, of course not, me neither. But just in case I made this so I can scroll just by leaning back in my chair:

If you look closely there's Adafruit's Feather nRF52840 Sense board attached to the back of the chair. It uses the onboard sensors to figure out the angle of the chair's back and if it's over a threshold it sends scroll down events to the computer (using the standard Bluetooth mouse protocol so it works with any OS). To set the "zero" position you press the "user switch" button on the board.

Here's the Arduino code.


Hat mouse

I've been playing around with orientation sensors and Bluetooth HID recently. Today I'd like to show you what is perhaps my most practical application of those yet. I made a head mouse, also known as an air mouse, or in my case, a hat mouse:

The device is attached to a hat and you move your head around to move the mouse cursor on the screen. It uses the standard Bluetooth mouse protocol so it works with Windows, Mac and Linux with no additional software running on the computer. The board used is Adafruit's Feather nRF52840 Sense. The way it works is it reads accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer data, puts it through a sensor fusion algorithm to get orientation and then uses the yaw and pitch values to position the mouse cursor on the screen. It uses absolute cursor positioning so any given head orientation corresponds to a fixed cursor position on the screen. To reset the center position, you press the "user switch" button on the board.

Here's the Arduino code. In addition to the Feather board we need some way to power it. I used this lipo battery, but the board can also be powered over the USB port so a small power bank could work as well.

As with some of my previous custom devices that work as a mouse, unfortuntely the hat mouse has no way of performing button clicks yet. In the video above I'm using a separate USB foot switch for clicking. Depending on the movement limitations of the user, something like a sip-and-puff switch might be more appropriate (same goes for the orientation reset button that's currently located on the board). The Feather nRF52840 Sense board has a lot of sensors in addition to those that we're currently using for the orientation. Perhaps the pressure sensor or the light sensor or even the microphone could be used to make entirely head-operated switches. I have some ideas, but I decided to treat that as a separate project.


Plotting sensor data with MS Paint and Bluetooth HID

I have recently discovered that the HID mouse protocol supports absolute cursor positioning in addition to the more common relative mode. I think that opens interesting possibilities, one of them being we can plot real-time charts in MS Paint with no additional software running on the computer, using just the standard Bluetooth mouse protocol:

The board used above is Adafruit's Feather nRF52840 Sense, which has Bluetooth LE and lots of sensors. On the video we're plotting readings from the accelerometer. The chart is drawn by simulating mouse and keyboard inputs (keyboard is used to clear the screen when we reach the right edge).

Here's the Arduino code.


USB "rubber ducky" with mouse input

Perhaps you're familiar with a type of device commonly referred to as a USB rubber ducky. It's a seemingly innocent device that looks like a regular USB drive, but when connected to a computer, it acts as a USB keyboard and sends malicious keystrokes to the victim's machine, as if a human typed them (but faster). The commands sent can download some unwanted software or open a reverse shell and do nasty stuff in general.

So I thought why stop at keyboard, why not also pretend to be a mouse, launch Paint and draw something funny:

The main challenge here is that a regular mouse doesn't really know where the cursor is on the screen. It only sends relative position changes like "move the cursor 7 units to the right and 2 units down". Depending on the sensitivity setting on the user's system, it might correspond to a different distance in pixels. When you add mouse acceleration into the mix, it's not really practical to try and guess where the cursor will end up being.

But, as is turns out, the mouse HID protocol also allows for absolute cursor positioning and all the major desktop operating systems support this mode (perhaps because touchscreens and graphics tablets use it?). With that knowledge, the task becomes easy, as we can just say "move the cursor to position X, Y".

I used a Digispark with a modified version of Adafruit's TrinketHidCombo library for the demo above. Here's the Arduino code.


Human trackball

Remember Logitech's April Fools' video from 2017? The one where the gym ball works as a trackball? I made that for real:

I did this as kind of a detour while working on the next version of my Bluetooth trackball from last year (stay tuned for that). I found a board on AliExpress that has the nRF52832 Bluetooth chip from Nordic, an MPU-9250 9DOF sensor, a built-in battery charging circuit and comes with a lipo battery attached. Originally a development board for a fitness bracelet, it looked like a pretty good match for my needs.

For this application I just attached the board to the gym ball using scotch tape (and tried to avoid sitting on it or crushing it by rolling the ball).

The software is derived from my previous IMU-based Bluetooth trackball attempt. This time I decided to do the sensor fusion algorithm in software - even though the MPU-9250 is better than the MPU-6050 because it has a magnetometer (3 more DOFs!), its onboard algorithm was not updated to make use of it - it still only uses the accelerometer and gyroscope. So I used Adafruit's library implementing Sebastian Madgwick's sensor fusion algorithm. I also used Sandeep Mistry's Arduino core for the nRF52832 chip and his BLEPeripheral library for Bluetooth. I programmed the board using Nordic's nRF52 DK development kit.

You can find the code here. Also included is a sketch for calibrating the magnetometer that sends the data over Bluetooth serial (I used Adafruit's Bluefruit Connect app to read the data). And since the gym ball itself has no way of performing button clicks, I used a foot switch connected to a Digispark for clicking the mouse. A sketch for that is also included.

Even though it looks like a trackball, the ball works more like a joystick in this case: when you tilt it to the right, the cursor moves as long as the ball is kept in that position and stops moving when it is returned to the neutral starting position. Right now it's not really a practical mouse or trackball replacement, but I believe that with some fine tuning it might become a viable option. Another possibility would be to only use it for scrolling, not moving the cursor, which I haven't tested, but it should be an easy modification.

Can't wait for Logitech's next year April Fools' video!