Building and customizing the Ploopy trackball

It all started with Ploopy

“What a crazy name for a trackball,” I thought to myself as I tweeted. ‘Ploopy’, several people responded. A friend commented that it looked like MS Trackball Explorer, an iconic trackball. “It would be a funny joke if I actually had a trackball,” I thought. (I wasn’t a “trackball person”.) The problem is that every bit that is taken to its logical conclusion just becomes sincerity and a year later I not only bought a Ploopy, I completely rebuilt it, and so on. way down the trackball rabbit hole that I had a brand new one made.

I have become a Trackball Sicko.

If you haven’t experienced the ’90s and never heard of a trackball, that’s more than understandable. For the uninitiated, a trackball is a pointing device similar to a mouse, except you use a small rolling sphere to move your cursor instead of moving the entire device. Trackballs used to be much more common, and trackball diehards say it can be an easier and more ergonomic way to interact with the user interface, especially for those with mobility limitations.

The crazy name aside, the idea that Ploopy motivates reflects something that’s been circulating in the DIY keyboard community for a while; namely open-source design and flexible firmware. The files for all the products Ploopy sells are on Github for anyone resourceful enough to get them manufactured, and the device itself runs QMK, one of the few lightweight keyboard firmwares out there. The devices are easy to remap and customize without installing invasive bloatware like Logitech G Hub or Razer Synapse, and many of the Ploopy products use the same sensors and switches found in advanced mice.

This is a world I was more than familiar with after building a split ergonomic keyboard called a sofle† The thing that sold me on the Ploopy was the Nano, a small buttonless trackball with a 1.5-inch snooker ball that fit snugly between the two halves of my split keyboard. For $45 CAD and just a little bit of soldering, I could have a little guy neatly in the middle of my keyboard to make small finite adjustments to the screen instead of having to lug my mouse every time I needed it. change something. Plus, being a split keyboard freak already, I was able to program a button on each half of the keyboard using layers, to act as mouse buttons one, two, and three.

“What the hell,” I said, then clicked buy.

The Nano turned out to be everything I expected and more. I put it together and it not only made it easier to make minor adjustments, it was instantly intuitive for my whole, erratic workflow. Editing was easier. Switching windows just got easier. I still had my mouse, a trusty Logitech G Pro, but I found myself scrolling less and less. I was in love.

I just wanted something between the two halves of my keyboard.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Then I found out about the mods.

Another element of the open-source design philosophy that motivates Ploopy and the keyboard community at large is iteration. Ploopy’s products are 3D printed and since all documents are available you can 3D print any housing you want for your Ploopy if you have access to a good enough printer.

The first mod that caught my eye was one by sick babies from users on the Ploopy subreddit (I know how absurd those two words sound together). A beautiful sand colored trackball with a stainless steel ball bearing specially designed to match their headphones and keyboard, a brown Le Chiffre. In addition, my good friend and fellow trackball sicko Jon told me that people had gone beyond the simple 3D-printed roller bearings that came with the Ploopy and reprinted their housings to use BTUs, or “Ball Transfer Units,” which are more free. can move than static or roller bearings and with much less friction. Finally someone uploaded a BTU mod for the Ploopy Nano and the path was clear to me. I ordered some BTUs, a steel ball, and made my preparations.

However, as it turns out, Ploopy isn’t the only game in town. While planning my upgrade, I got wind of the work of Jfedor2, a Redditor who had made their own open source PCB [printed circuit board] and breakout board for quickly prototyping new trackballs and mice using the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s relatively new but groundbreaking RP2040 chip. As I’m writing this, he’s uploaded at least 10 absolutely alien-looking trackballs and mice, including a vaguely pyramidal with a scroll wheel, a trackball with two trackballs, a trackball where you can rotate the ball to scroll, and a spherical trackball perfect for orb think.

Fabricating the circuit board for a mouse is not as difficult as it used to be. Provided you have the Gerber files (a PCB vector file), a BOM (BOM) and a CPL (Component Placement List) file, manufacturers (such as JLCPCB or ALLPCB) will not only print your printed circuit board for you, they will sell you all the parts you need and solder those painful little surface mount components to the board for you (provided there is no, say, parts shortage). I placed an order for five trackball circuit boards and my aforementioned fellow trackball friend printed me some retro-looking, clear and sea foam shells for not only my Ploopy Nano, but a big brother called Trackball 7 which is a full-sized billiard ball.

Once mounted they were both beautiful. The BTUs on the newly upgraded Nano rolled smoothly and easily, a marked improvement over the base model, and the clear plastic exuded an unearthly glow. But not everything went smoothly. While the chrome steel ball I got for it felt lovely to the touch, the surface had to break in a bit for it to track properly. Some on Reddit solved this by sanding theirs to remove the shine from the finish, and another recommended using an acrylic top coat and a different chemical bluing. This is probably why traditional trackball makers like Logitech use a sparkly trackball instead.

I had made a fateful mistake when I had Jfedor’s trackball circuit boards made: two of the voltage regulators on the board were terminally backordered, so I found equivalents at Digi-Key (an electronic components distributor), soldered those little suckers on them, and loaded on the firmware. Now I have a fully functional and very weird looking trackball in my house.

A PCB to install in a trackball.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

But supply chain issues aside, I was happy. I had taken something and modified it from scratch so that it was truly mine, and in the process of creating these objects I had gained not only more confidence in my abilities but also a clear understanding of how to take the torch and also build something new. As it turns out, there’s little stopping you from making your own trackball, when you’re that sick.

But once you are on this path, there is of course no rest. Sure, these bearings are: very smooth, but could they be… smoother? I could apply a dry coat of tungsten disulfide on the BTUs as I had read on weapons forums. Or can I have my trackball coated with something like Cerakote or DLC (diamond-like carbon)? Or the hell, what if I just built a keyboard with a trackball in it, like the Oddball, the Splitballer, the Keyball46, the ino, or the one I saw some early mockups of. I also have those round trackpads in the post that I bought after talking to Freznel about their board – maybe that’s the way to go? And now that I know how to change a micro switch, why not disassemble my mouse and replace the switch with the silent one I impulsively ordered from AliExpress?

On second thought, maybe you don’t want to be a trackball sick. Look what it did to me.

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