1_37_384Inspired by posts on ProfHacker and Lifehacker, I decided to hack myself a new office door sign. Moreover, I was determined to produce a working prototype for less than $100. There are several how-to guides out there, but here are some specifics of my pilot project.

Step 1: Obtain an old laptop.

I sent around an email in my department asking for old laptops that still boot up but which are no longer being used. I indicated that the laptop would not survive the procedure I had planned (at least not as a laptop), so my colleagues should only donate their old laptops if they didn’t want them back. I received an old 2001 Toshiba Satellite the next day, and there are a few others coming soon. I also contacted the campus recycling centre and asked them to keep an eye out for laptops.

Step 2: Strip down the laptop.

The only parts you need are the LCD screen, the motherboard (including fan, USB ports, ethernet port, etc.), the hard drive, the power switch, and the guts of the touch pad. The latter is just so it will boot up without complaining that there is no mouse. Pretty much everything can be disassembled by removing tiny screws. Oh, so many screws. It helps to have a computer toolkit, but any small screwdriver will work. Be sure to recycle the plastic case and to dispose of the battery in an environmentally responsible way.

Stuff you don’t need.
Step 3: Get a picture frame.

I decided to mount the door sign inside a picture frame. The criteria for the frame are that it be large enough (I ended up with one 11″ x 14″), as deep as possible (you could also go with an actual shadow box), and cheap. Cost: $20.

Step 4: Attach the laptop components to the frame.

Since this was just a pilot project, I didn’t worry too much about aesthetics. To wit, I attached the LCD to the inside of the glass with electrical tape, trimmed and replaced the particle board backing and taped it in, and then taped all the components to the outside.

Electrical tape is the new duct tape.
This extended beyond the frame a bit, so I found some spacers and screws and attached a piece of old particle board that I had in my garage. Again, I didn’t work under stringent aesthetic standards, so it’s pretty rough (but no one sees it most of the time anyway).

Side view showing spacers and back.
Step 5: Test.

Plug in the power and test it to see if it will boot up. In my case, it would get partway there and would shut down. This sort of thing often happens if the processor is overheating, and sure enough there was an issue with the fan. I took the fan off, replaced the heat sink compound, and put everything back in place. It is now working fine. Cost: $10.

Step 6: Mount on the door or wall.

This will vary according to your office layout, but in my case I mounted the frame on the inside of my office door using some simple brackets. Cost: $0.49 x 4.

The back of my door. I stuck a cool poster on it just because.
Step 7: Connect to internet.

This particular laptop did not have wireless capabilities (did I mention it was old?), and using the campus wireless network requires logins and other hassles anyway, so I just ran a 25′ cable from a switch on my desk. Cost: $30.

Step 8: Make desktop wallpaper.

I made an image of the correct dimensions that is black with some white boxes that provide information that I want permanently displayed, such as how to make an appointment.

Step 9: Set up Twitter.

To have real time updates on my whereabouts available to visitors, I followed the example posted by others and set up a Twitter feed just for this. On the display computer I installed Twhirl to show my tweets and added it to the startup programs. Others have used TweetDeck, but I find that Twirl lets you do more customization, such as increasing the font size to make it easier to read. I also installed a Twitter application on my BlackBerry so I can update it from anywhere easily.

Step 10: Create a slideshow.

With the extra space on the screen, I created a slideshow of images from our lab in irfanview, set the size and location, and exported as an executable that loads automatically on startup. I also set the Windows taskbar to auto-hide so it’s not visible most of the time.

Step 11: Set up remote access.

Although I can make changes on the mounted display computer by plugging in a USB mouse and keyboard, it’s handy to be able to access it from my desk. To do this, I set up a free LogMeIn account.

Step 12: Set up Wake on LAN

I don’t want the display computer to run all the time, but I also don’t want it to only be turned on if I am in my office. This would defeat part of the purpose, which is to let people know when I am not in. To be able to turn it on remotely, I first set the BIOS to enable Wake on LAN. You access the BIOS menu during boot up by hitting a particular key depending on your computer (e.g., DEL, F2), and if your motherboard supports it you will see a Wake on LAN option that can be enabled under Power Management Setup. You will also need the IP address and MAC (aka physical) address of the computer, which you can get by running a command prompt (START -> RUN -> command) and typing “ipconfig /all”.

Next, I set up a desktop application from SolarWinds that can send the “magic packet” to boot the mounted computer. There are various other free programs available that will do the same thing. This can also be done through an online site that I can access from my other computer or from my BlackBerry. Wake on LAN appears to be rather finicky and doesn’t seem to work every time, so I am still fiddling with it. Also, I have not yet found a decent BlackBerry application that can remotely boot computers, which I would prefer over using a webpage. But in preliminary tests I was able to turn it on from my desktop and from my BlackBerry, at least when I am on campus.

That’s it! The sign is now operational and looks great on the door. Total cost: $62.00.