The Tale of the Shiny Desk.
Updated: Dec 8, 2019
This is a post I've been wanted to make since long time ago,, like really long long time ago. Just didn't really have the urge to do it; until now. So, if you are curious about the story behind it, keep reading.
Why the hell did you do it?
The answer is quite simple yet complicated. I was pretty much anticipating boredom facing-up for the company summer closure in 2016. Yep, RENA Electronica the company where I am currently working-at after just 6 months in that time has collective closure during summer period. In that period pretty much everyone were supposed to take holiday, except few parts of the production that keeps running. So there'll still be someone working in the building which means I can get access to my desk.
This coincides with the fact that in that section of my life, I :
Had got NO plans for summer vacation
Had got NO Girlfriend
Had got NOTHING to do
But happened to have some vacation money.
So, why not make the shiniest, coolest, most distracting workstation in the world right? Well, you guess it right. The plan was to spend a week of planning and another week of executing it. By the first Monday of the third week, most people would be back from vacation and be shocked to death!
If you are wondering how my desk looked like before I start executing? see below. Nothing really special except an unorganized cluttered piece of desk.
After all the efforts, several modifications, improvements and iterations below video will speaks for itself (Watch in FHD)
The Grand Concept
It has been quite clear since the beginning to me that I want to make the desk full of RGB LEDs that is individually controllable. The question was however; what was the best way or technique to do it. Surely without digging too deep on my wallet. So I ended up doing my research on a thing called Infinity Mirror. This concept has been around for a long time but I've never really get my hands on making such a thing; new thing = extra motivation for me.
Wikipedia gives a nice explanation about it:
"The 3D illusion mirror effect is produced whenever there are two parallel reflective surfaces which can bounce a beam of light back and forth an indefinite (theoretically infinite) number of times. The reflections appear to recede into the distance because the light actually is traversing the distance it appears to be travelling.
When studied using the principles of geometrical optics, the series of repeating images forms the infinite mathematical surface known as Gabriel's Horn, or Torricelli's Trumpet, named in honor of Italian mathematician Evangelista Torricelli, who first studied it. In theory, such a surface is infinite in area, but encloses a finite volume."
Alright, now enough with the theory. The fun parts for me was more in researching what materials to use and how to make the perfect composition for the desk. Sure, if it is just a small mirror area you'd like to make, there are plenty of options you can do, but my desk has dimension of approximately 240x90cm; so it was quite huge. Getting a real mirror this size will surely broke my bank right away. So anyway, I concluded few key-parts I needed to sort-out and arrange. Those are:
The RGB LEDs
Normal mirror / the primary mirror
Stand-offs / gap maker
1. The RGB LEDs
The selection of the LED type was quite the easiest for me. I knew exactly what LED to use and how exactly to control it before even started. Yes, it is the infamous Chinese LED Strip WS2812B with built-in controller. They are available as a flexible strip, suitable without a doubt for my installation as I need to make nice bent edges.
The only questions was, what would be the LED pitch I should select, generally they are available in 30, 60 or 144 LEDs/Meter. The pitch with the fewest LED might be too big, the effect won't be that nice, on the other hand the 144 LEDs/Meter version looks overkill, will require lots of power and not to mentioned the relatively expensive price in that time. So 60 LEDs/Meter with about 12mm edge-to-edge pitch was then the way to go.
The size or my desk is about 240x90cm, with a simple math you'd then need just about 660 Cm to cover the entire rectangular perimeter. Well, surely not, I estimated I would need more than double the perimeter in order to make a nice island of lights in the middle section of the desk. You'll understand better what I meant by this on later section.
In total, looking back in the history of my Aliexpress checkout, I ordered in total of 15 meters with a total price, $60, not to shabby.
2. The (Normal) Base Mirror
This part cost me quite some time to figure out. I spent quite a while thinking I could get a pre-cut custom mirror with reasonable price. Well turns out I was wrong. Not just extremely expensive, but also expected to be extremely fragile. I went visiting several Supermarket for buildings, like Hornbach, Gamma and Praxis here in the Netherlands. Didn't get any luck, but fortunately enough in Hornbach I happened to pass a section where they sell roll of laminate generally used for for windows or wallpaper. In Dutch I think the name of these such a thing is called plakfolie. Voila, after digging up further to their displayed inventories, I discovered there is actually such a thing called Rol Spiegel Plakfolie; in Normal language you can translate it to a roll-able adhesive mirror film. The one that I found though it was quite small and not too reflective I must say. Doesn't really act like a reflective mirror, not to mention that the size that they have was quite small.
But anyway, I was happy going home with a new dutch keywords that explains exactly what I need; Rol Spiegel Plakfolie.
It took me just few hours to discover reliable dutch company that supply these things. Either custom pre-cut or standard size. The best part about them is that they do also provide some tiny pre-cut samples that cost nothing to try and play around first. Digging up into my inbox from years ago, the web-shop of the company is called www.plakfoliewebshop.nl.You see, I find it quite fascinating that some Dutch company / web-shop instantly explains by itself what they sell.
I thought my luck that day was just about knowing about the Rol Spiegel Plakfolie, but I was wrong. The width of my desk is 90cm, and guess what... 90cm is the standard width of the rollable adhesive film. So for me it was just about ordering the right length. This cost me about 45 Euro at the end for a length of 250 Cm.
3. 2-way mirror
This is the part that baffled me the most. I spend quite a while searching on a roll-able 2-way mirror film, I sincerely thought only this type will work and would give a nice infinity effect. Somehow, this was quite difficult to get and quite pricey for the large size. In other words, I couldn't find what I really needed.
But guess what, plakfoliewebshop.nl saved the day. In their website I discovered another folie/film but this time it is called there raamfolie. Though apparently this is not a typical raamfolie, but a zonwerend raamfolie. It is literally translated to sun protection window film. In principle these should pretty much do similar job as a pure 2-way mirror. Accept this one is specifically targeted for window installation that blocks UV lights upon entering the house and acts so so as a reflective surface for the outsider. The specs says it blocks 90% of UV but only reflects 17% of visible light spectrum. In short, I wasn't quite confident about this but decided to give it a try and order some sample.
4. Transparent Surface
The next task for me was to find a proper surface for sticking the 2-way mirror film onto, certainly this has to be transparent. It is basically the surface where I will be working off of and where my whole setup will be on. Fortunately, I have got quite some experience with Acrylic Plexiglas, so I kinda know what I'm expecting here. They are quite robust, not too fragile as glass, you can order it in multiple thickness and you can have it laser-cut for a custom shape you want. In that time for me it was just about finding the cheapest supplier, testing the right thickness and make sure that the surface is not repellent towards adhesive film.
Same story here, I ordered some samples in multiple thickness just to be sure before I start ordering the real size. Also I didn't see the point of ordering the non-basic type with different tinted color, opaque level etc. Just the most basic and transparent acrylic Plexiglas.
In the end I selected the 3 mm type and it costed me about 85 euro pre-cut for exactly the dimension of my desk. The website I purchased from is called dokterplexiglass.nl; Yes, there is such a doctor here in the Netherlands that specialize in Plexiglas.
5. Stand-off / Gap maker
Certainly in order to make the infinity mirror effect you would need a gap in between 2 different mirrors. And the distance between the mirror defines the distance between the LED on the final infinity effect. So ideally, the gap between the mirror should be as little as possible just enough for the LED strip to be sandwiched in between.
Furthermore, apart from being a place for the LEDs to be stick onto, the stand-off has to be robust enough so that the whole construction does not fall apart in case someone happen to lean on the desk or too heavy stuff getting installed on the desk. It took me just few minutes in Hornbach to know exactly what I need. It is the plastic cable organizer profile or in dutch it is generally called kabelgoot. It is light, quite robust, cheap and there is a side clamp where you can actually open and have a wires through it. Ohh, and also it comes with a pre-applied double sided tape for ease of mounting.
They do come in multiple length and width for sure, i picked one that is just about 10 mm in width, just enough for my LED strip. Cost just few euros per meter from Hornbach. Quite frankly, nothing is really special on this.
Moment of Truth
Not long after that I've got all the samples to start with proving the concept. This should be quick and dirty, it is just a matter of making sure the type of glass films are OK and the distance would be just perfect for the infinity light effect. Lo-and-behold, it works exceptionally well just like what I had in mind. I didn't really care about the level of light losses I got with these films, it happened to looks great to my eyes and that's it. That night I immediately put the order for the final size, all at once.
The High Level System Architecture
While waiting for all the parts to arrive, surely I had been spinning my head planning and thinking about the complete system level of the desk; what to add, where to put, how to interface, cabling-stuffs and certainly the software integration. Having just blinky lights on your desk without complementary peripherals just feels like something is missing. And that is actually quite an understatement. I do need to have lots and lots of cool stuff just to make sure that I won't be running of ideas of what to do next. So.. sorted by the level of importance, here are few things I decided to add:
This certainly is the most crucial part of the setup and in fact I've started with the system requirements a bit earlier. The main reason I decided to make my own keyboard instead of just buying the coolest keyboard from the store is that, I simply want to have a full control of what the keyboard should do. This will not just be a basic HID input to the computer, but also will be the control panel towards the whole desk infrastructure. It is equipped with multiple wireless modules from Bluetooth, WIFI, Lora, NFC just to let it able to have wireless connection with multiple slaves. It took me a couple of weeks from ideas, research, hardware design and final execution. This is a blog on itself to be honest, In fact I made long tutorial about this and made this open source as well through Hackaday, links.
2. 3D printer
The second thing I had in mind was 3D printer. I always wanted to have 3D printer long before it was famous; when the entry level type from makerbot still costs upwards of $1000 and 3D printer was just haven't become a household words. For me it was just the right timing, not just because the 3D printer price has gone much downhill, but I also do like the idea of casual manufacturing on my desk. In other words, having a machine producing something by my side while I'm busy working on other things in parallel feels like dream team.
Surely, there are many types of 3D printer currently available, but generally for home use, you can either buy a type with filament extrusion method, or resin type. Resin type however in that type was not that readily available as compare to now, not to mentioned the delta in pricing between the two type is enormous. So I decided to stick with the Filament type. Even then there are many types of filament based 3D printers. To me in that time, there were just two options; buy with linear X-Y axis motor setup Cartesian or Circular type axis / delta type. In the end I decided to buy the delta type simply because it takes less horizontal space though requires some vertical space indeed. Apart from that, it just looks much cooler with the overall tone of the unit.
If you think this comes pre-assembled, you are wrong. I bought from Aliexpress with branded Micromake for just about $200. One of the reason if not the only reason that the price can be so low is because it comes un-assembled. Yes, pretty much like IKEA furniture except this includes electronics, motor, belt and power supply.
4. Robotic Arm
Controlling a robotic arms is something that I happen to really enjoy. Made my first mobile robotic arms robot from scratch in 2012 and since then I always find it fascinating seeing people develop such a thing. This wasn't part of the initial plan though, until I saw quite affordable servo kits from China that is specifically meant for DIY robotic Arm. This was a 6 Degrees of Freedom kit with rotating base and hand grip for just about 100 euro as far as I remember. So this was quite a steal. But the kit only includes the mechanical parts, the electronics control I have got to arrange it myself.
5. Laptop Docking
Well this is an obvious part. There should be a section where I can easily dock my laptop on-and-off. Having a workstation laptop, this is not a problem at all, but still, some place need to be allocated on the desk. As you'll see in the build-up photos on later section, initially my laptop was docked exactly in the center spot of the desk, just across the keyboard. This was en easy decision to make because then all the computer cabling from the docking such as the monitors and power supply are easily accessible. Also this will be quite a convenient and easily accessible part for me to load and unload the laptop everyday.
This configuration lasts for almost 2 years, until this laptop 'exploded' internally. Almost literally exploded quite frankly. One day just weeks before crucial deadline it decided to stop working and upon investigation, the SSD was fried and no data was recoverable. Few weeks later I got a new laptop, a big better, but it is noticeably lighter. The best part however, it does have Thunderbolt 3 interface built-in. So it was just a matter of time for in getting External GPU setup. If you are not familiar with Thunderbolt 3, this lightning fast interface can go as high as 40 Gb/second. Yes, so you can connect external peripherals such as external graphics card just to get the best out of your laptop.
This however comes with a bit of cost, generally speaking if you want to get the best speed out of a thunderbolt 3 connection you need a very capable cabling; not just a standard USB C cable. Sure you can get the longer cable that is fully compatible with the highest speed, but these cable were quite expensive. The one that I got out of the box from the EGPU case was just half a meter long. So, I simply decided to have the docking setup on the right side of the desk. Just like the photos you see above. In case you are wondering what EGPU case I use, it is called OMEN Accelerator.
6. Complementary Features
Apart from all the things I mentioned above, there are several other key components of the desk that is quite worth mentioning. One thing is the dedicated area for my mouse and my macro keyboard. Despite the fact that I built one of a kind keyboard, I just could not effectively work without a decent mouse and macro keyboard to speed things up. My Mouse I only use specifically mouse from Penclic that is shaped really like a pen and it just so ergonomic. I never felt sore on my palm and wrist even after working 12 hours straight. On top of that, on the left hand side of my keyboard, I do use Macro one-handed keyboard made by Razer; it is named specifically Razer Tartarus V2. Yups, it is a programmable one-handed keyboard that you can pre-configure to do all kinds of shortcut. This has been proven to increase my productivity especially when I'm designing a PCB.
Another thing that is quite obvious is the LED tile underneath the desk. It is a mod from one of the project that I developed in 2017. It has motion/vibration sensor that detects if someone is stepping on it. Also it is embedded with capacitive sensors that sense if someone feet is standing-still on it. With its built-in Wifi, it can then communicate to my Keyboard directly.
Furthermore, If you look carefully in the latest photo of the workstation, you'll see that there is an electronics kit just across my keyboard. That is a sales Demo kit that I design in 2018. As the name implies, that is meant for showcasing the capabilities of the company in a single board. On my desk however, it is used mostly for quick testing beta software and running some electronics demo for projects that I work on.
I guess this is the section you are most likely looking for. Excuse for all the long text above if you find it boring. But from now on, you will mostly only see cool and exciting photos; Hopefully :)
This is a second week of my company closure already, that means I don't have much time left to finish things up. All the parts I ordered had arrived so... SHOWTIME.
Step 1: Clean the sh*t out of the Desk
First and foremost, certainly I had to put aside all the stuff on the table and clean it. Nothing really special on this step, but picture below you'll see how clean and shiny the table was.
Step 2: Get the Mirror film and apply it to the desk gently.
This was quite an easy step I must say, just need to make sure that it is properly aligned to the table and not deviating along the way. In the end, I just need peel-out the protective cover film.
Step 3: Place the Stand-offs around the perimeter
After applying the mirror, the next thing that I did was to put the stand-offs around the perimeter of the desk. As I mentioned earlier, I used a very basic cable tray made out of PVC as shown below. quite easy part to do overall.
Step 4: Making the Islands
I have to say, this is the part that I like the most. Because I didn't expect in the end the effect will be that nice. If still don't know what I mean by making the Islands, it is pretty much the areas on the desk in which I will put my stuffs on. Like the monitor, keyboard, 3D printers. As I am using a Acrylic Plexiglass, there is no way only the side stand-offs will be able to support the whole weight. So you need to put something in the middle.
I considered several things actually, but in the end I just decided to use packaging foam from our warehouse that actually do the job quite well. You can probably understand better what I meant just by looking at the pictures below.
Step 5: Wire the LEDs up
As soon as you've got the island ready, you can pretty much started with the wiring of the LEDs throughout the perimeter of the islands as well as outer perimeter of the desk. As a matter of fact, the LED strips comes with pre-applied double sided tape, so it was quite easy to do this along the table. One thing I learned though, if you expect to make a sharp angle with the LED strip, you'd be better of using the non-potted type of the LED strip. I happened to order with a silicon potting on top of it and had a hard time in making a sharp angle; I had to manually remove the potting on that corner.
Step 6: Apply the 2-way reflective film to the acrylic plexiglas
After mounting the LEDs and making sure it is lighting up, the next thing I did was applying the 2-way reflective film to the acrylic plate. This is the part that I hate the most quite frankly. I had to redo it several times and even then I was not completely satisfy. This in theory should be easy, but due to the size of the plate, I failed it quite badly. Main challenge was that I couldn't manage to get all the bubble out. Either I should've used another liquid not just plain water or simply I was just so bad at doing it.
At last I managed to do it just good enough, but you'll see that it could've been done better. You see at the third photo below.
Step 7: Extra dark cover film
Just after the last step, honestly I was quite disappointed. I did not manage to apply the film properly and the imperfection was clearly visible. Fortunately enough, I decided to try adding dark film on top of the whole infinity sandwich just to try to cover it up a bit. Voila, it turns out to be extremely good. Well, I'm sure I got even more light losses, but I didn't really care. This was not meant for room illumination anyway.
After seeing the outcome as shown on the third picture below this is the exact moment whee I say money worth spending.
Step 8: The rest of the fun parts.
After finishing the last step, the rest is just making sure everything that is planned to be put on top of the desk work seamlessly. Starting with building the 3D printer, Robotic arms up to handling all the cabling behind it. There were massive upgrade as well in the beginning of 2018 due to the fact that my older laptop got fried. Some of the photos during that upgrade can be sen below:
Showcased during Avans Hogeschool Event