2019-06-13

Bluetooth trackball with all the electronics inside the ball

For a while now I've been fascinated with the idea of making a trackball-type input device in which the ball itself would be the entire device. Unlike a regular trackball, where the ball is just a ball and registering its motion and communicating with the computer is done by external sensors and chips, here everything would live inside the ball. And now I have finally done it. Here's a video:

And here's how I did it. For obvious reasons, the device couldn't use USB, it had to be Bluetooth. For registering the rotation of the ball, a combination of an accelerometer and a gyroscope seemed like a good way of ensuring smooth results. I ended up using the following components:

I designed the ball itself in Fusion 360 and then 3D printed it. It has a diameter of 10 centimeters and consists of three parts, two halves of the ball and an inside part that holds the electronics and the battery. The three parts screw together to form the ball. I also made a stand on which the ball can be rolled, but that's just to make it easier to use as a trackball, the stand is optional and the device works when held in the air as well.

Here's what it looks like inside (the MPU-6050 is under the battery):

For the software part, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the MPU-6050 chip can do the sensor fusion magic (combining the outputs of the accelerometer and the gyro) for us and just give us the 3D orientation in the form of a quaternion. What's left then for the Arduino to do is to read the current orientation, calculate the difference between the previous orientation and the current one, translate it to X and Y mouse cursor offsets and send the appropriate commands to the Bluetooth chip that will pass them on to the computer.

Here's the Arduino code.

You may wonder how the ball knows which direction the cursor should go when it's rotated in a certain direction. The answer is of course that it doesn't, so the initial mapping of the directions might not be correct. But it does know which way is up (because it has an accelerometer), so the directions can be calibrated by rotating the ball around the vertical axis.

While I personally consider this project a great success, there's always room for improvement. For example, the trackball would be a little more practical if it had the ability to click, not just to move the cursor. I explored the idea of detecting taps on the ball using the accelerometer, but found it hard to eliminate false positives. This area needs some additional work.

An obvious shortcoming of the current solution is that to switch the device on or off, I have to unscrew the two halves and connect or disconnect the battery. Ideally there would be some way of doing that without disassembling the ball, a magnetic switch of some sort or maybe the device could always be on and just go to sleep when it's not used for a while (like regular wireless mice do).

On a related note it would be really cool if we also didn't have to open the ball to change the battery. Seems like a good use case for wireless charging.

If I ever do a next version of this, I will probably try to use a different Bluetooth board, one that's not discontinued (and perhaps can do Bluetooth LE).

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