With the spread of Arduino and related hobby microcontrollers, we’ve started to see a new kind of gadget emerging: the Hackable. Hackables are gadgets that do something right out of the box, but their microcontrollers are exposed for reprogramming, so if you want to tweak them — or even rework them entirely — you can do that, too.
JacoBurges’ “TouchPad” is a neat piece of kit that fully embraces the hackables moniker. Out of the box, it’s a secondary keyboard made from a single circuit board, but its 6×6 grid of “keys” are actually programmable touch sensors.
The notion is you can load the board up with hotkeys for your favorite program, scribble whatever icons you like on a clear plastic card that lays over the board, and use it as a productivity tool.
The look and feel of the board is elegantly simple. A motor subtly vibrates the board when keys are pressed, replacing the physical “click” of a mechanical keyboard, with lights for each key shining through from the back of the board. Aside from the PCB itself and the plastic overlay, the only parts are a pair of rubber feet that make the keyboard rest at a slight angle. These feet are also how the plastic sheets are held in place: The same thumb-screws that hold the feet on also can be removed to swap out the plastic label sheet. Out of the box, the board comes with a thoughtful array of accessories. There are multiple plastic sheets for you to draw different keyboard layouts on. The short USB cable is great for laptop use, but desktop users will want a longer cable.
So that’s how this TouchPad works as a pre-made gadget. How maker-appropriate is it?
The TouchPad’s brain is an ATMega32u4, a chip you’ve likely programmed before if you’ve done more than a few microcontroller projects. If you want to change its behavior, the program that runs the keyboard can be downloaded from the designer’s website. You can study it, change it, rework any part of it that you need to behave differently. The sample code has plenty of documentation inline, explaining how it can be customized. What’s more, the no-frills board lends itself well to being a building block in a larger project.
The board doesn’t expose any pins: It’s only meant to be connected via USB. However, keen-eyed makers may notice 3×2 exposed copper pads on the back, in the same layout as an ICSP header…