Sooper Secret Project Complete!

A couple of months ago, I read about this guy's project to mount a touchscreen monitor into his wall to serve as his home's media control center. As it happened, the previous evening we had hosted a bunch of folks for dinner, and I spent the evening going in and out of my office to fiddle with iTunes on my computer and play the right music.

Flash back a month or so to when I had read about a couple of guys different takes on DIY digital photo frames, which seemed like a good idea. Besides the 3 people that read the 'Groove on a regular basis (from the statistics of them seem to be in Iowa. Which is interesting, as I don't think know anyone in Iowa), the mass of digital photos we've accumulated over the past few years don't even have the dignity of collecting dust in an album in our house. They languish in electronic archives, unseen.

Since I've had to leave all my lovely powertools behind in the US, I had a mass of creative energy built up. I told my bride she'd just have to humor me for a while, and one quick trip to ebay later, and I had a 7" Lilluput Touch Screen Monitor, just like the ones used for the dashboards of the extremely overpriced luxury cars. Because I didn't want to pay the extortionist prices charged for anything electronic in Europe, I ended up buying it in the US and having it shipped to one of my buddies there (a.k.a.The Soul Cowboy and I picked it up on my last trip over.

I already have a PC that does nothing more than serve as the webcam and iTunes MP3 server for the house. So that part was done.

Without the tools to put the frame together myself, I took the monitor into a local shop and spent a couple of hours talking through the options with the proprietor. We ended up having to build the frame up out of stock to give enough depth for the monitor and some circulation.

One of the fiddly bits we had to sort out was how to support the screen in the frame, but make the buttons accessible (without looking silly) and make the whole thing easy to disassemble as needed. The frame-guy suggested using the same metal clips he uses to mount antique oil paintings. This is why I'm glad I ended up using a professional! And you can see that even with the power and serial cables plugged in, the cabling requirements are pretty minimal (optimized for the limited space available in car dashboards). We chose the same dark mahogany finish that's prevalent on the furniture in our house.

We were aiming to mount this frame in the dining room, as a central point of the open floor plan of our house, and the center point of any hosting we do. This was convenient from a wiring perspective (always important to consider, and more so when retro-fitting a 400 year old stone building like we live in), as it's directly opposite the wall of my office. We ended up choosing a small space directly opposite some built in shelves - which gave me a convenient spot for the server as well. It was just a matter of drilling a 1/2" hole in the wall for the wires and popping them through. The total length of the serial cable was under 8 feet, so it was up and running with suprisingly little fuss.

The total screen resolution is 640x480, so it took a little getting used to operating, but wasn't really a problem. I have the server's monitor feed split ($15 splitter) and running into a kvm switch so that I can swap over and control and/or update anything from using my main monitor, keyboard and mouse as well for straightforward maintenance. Probably the nicest touch was my bride's idea; we had the frame guy (who really rocks. Seriously, if you live anywhere close to the northwest of England and need some killer frames for a reasonable price, drop me a line) make up two identical frames prepared for photos. So now the whole thing blends in as a part of the decor, rather than leaping out as a modern gizmo mounted on the wall. And when not actively used for to play music, the monitor is set to a screensaver that cycles through digital photos every 6 seconds.

The speakers are hidden underneath a sideboard in the dining room, and nearly invisible. I went with the Creature speaker set from JBL. They're stylish enough to blend in and give a pretty decent sound quality through the space. The wires were run under the carpet and baseboard into the speaker and are nearly invisible. The total cost for this project broke was right at $575. $200 for the monitor, £45 for each of the three frames, and £65 for the speakers, plus a few bucks for various twiddly bits (svga splitter, etc). The power for the monitor is US based, and run through a simple adaptor, so I can take the whole thing back to the US with me. Although by that time, monitor prices will have continued to drop, so I may upgrade to a larger size.

It should be noted that during this whole exercise, my bride patiently let me proceed and was only occasionally was seen to sigh and roll her eyes. But as soon as the whole thing was in, she was jumping up and down with excitement over using it. And it's had a surprising extra bonus: the critter has always loved looking at pictures of herself on the computer. The first time she walked by the frame while it was rotating through digital photos, she ended up riveted to the display for half an hour. And half an hour of peace from a not-quite-three-year-old is worth a hell of a lot.

Overall Rating: Totally worth it.