Sunday, May 06, 2007

Converting an old Laptop into a Digital Picture Frame

After successfully repairing my wife’s old Sony Vaio Laptop, I was able to continue my plan to convert the laptop into a digital picture frame.

Researching and Planning the Project
I spent some time researching various ideas of this type of project. I ran across several good resources and how-to’s on converting your laptop into a digital picture frame. Two of my favorite examples I found on the internet included the fotobox and the Popular Science digital frame. I got ideas from many different examples on the net and began outlining my requirements for the project:
• I wanted the frame to look as much like a real picture frame as possible. It couldn’t have any of the computer exposed so it would require a shadowbox to enclose the laptop.
• I wanted the pictures to automatically update from the web. I wanted to be able to change the photos displayed on the picture frame without needing to log into the PC with VLC or something else. It needed to be easy enough that my wife or daughter could update the photos.
• While I wanted the picture frame to access the internet, I didn’t want to have any cords coming out of it other than the power cord so it would require wifi.
• I wanted it to power up, log in to the default user (using XP) and start showing pictures as soon as it was powered up. It should be as simple as plugging it in and it just works.

Setting up the Software
Next up was to set up the PC software. As the laptop lay on the workbench half opened, I did the following:
• Installed Microsoft TweakUI and set it so that the laptop would start up without the login screen. I wanted to be able to plug it in, and start up the photo album software automatically.
• Installed Slickr software. Slickr is free software that will run a slideshow using shows images organized in any flickr account by: User, tags sets etc. I set up a set in my flickr account with all of the photos I wanted to show on the photo album. Once I run Slickr, it will access the internet via the laptops wireless internet card, download the specified photos from flickr as it runs, and show the photos. As I change the photos in that set over time, the photo album will use those photos in that set. This makes it easy to keep the photo album up-to-date without having to mess with keyboards or usbdrives.
• Removed all desktop icons and used tweakui to remove the recycle icon from the desktop. I then changed the background to a photo I like. This way it will show a photo even if the album stops working for some reason.
• Installed Tightvnc so I could control the laptop from another PC if I needed to do maintenance etc without a keyboard or mouse attached to the picture frame.
• Set up the laptop to hibernate and restart based on a specific schedule. This was done to save energy and hopefully lengthen the life of the laptop. It only runs when people will be around to see it. It comes on automatically though so I don’t have to remember to turn it on or off. If for any reason I want to turn it on (wake it) outside of the normal schedule I can just hit the power button which will be exposed on the back of the frame.

Reassembling the Laptop
Now that all of the software was set up and working just like I wanted, it was time to reassemble the laptop in a way to make everything fit just right inside the frame. I had already detached the LCD from the computer by detaching the hinges holding the lcd in place and then removing the cover just above the keyboard to expose the lcd connector ribbon. This ribbon needs to be detached from the motherboard. I then removed all of the plastic housing from the around the LCD. The naked LCD will be flush with the shadowbox’s display glass. I layed the LCD down on the back of the laptop (opposite side from the keyboard) and reattached the connector ribbon. I then attached the LCD to the back of the laptop with glue. I now had a “Franken-laptop” ready to go into the frame.

Making the Frame
Next up was the shadowbox to hold the laptop. I bought a basic, black shadowbox at Hobby Lobby along with a sheet of foam core to hold everything in place and a matte border cut to fit just around the LCD screen so nothing would show except for the LCD and the pictures themselves. I cut holes in the shadowbox for the power button and power cord as well as some extra ventilation holes near the laptop fan vent. I shaped the foam core sheet by setting the LCD screen over the foam and drawing an outline. I then cut the foam so that the LCD screen would sit just inside the foam and hold the screen snug inside the frame. With all the parts ready, I placed the foamcore then the laptop inside the shadowbox. Then I put in some filler foam to hold the laptop in place leaving plenty of room for ventilation inside the box. With everything inside I sealed up the shadowbox and plugged it in. After about 30 seconds, it begins the Slickr slide show and automatically gets whatever photos I have stored in my albums set on flickr. It’s totally user friendly and requires zero administration other than the occasional update to flickr when I want to change the photos it shows.

Final Results – Digital Picture Frame
Everything has worked nicely and the frame is prominently displayed on our home bar in the finished basement. The frame is actually a great conversation piece for two reasons. First, people always ask where we got it and then how I made it once they realize it was a diy project. Second, the constantly changing pictures always are a topic of conversation. This has been one of my most satisfying tech diy projects. It was fun, very cheap to do and I learned a great deal and it turned out to be a hit with all guests. If you have an old laptop sitting around I wholly recommend you give it a try.

If your interested, the full photoset of pictures from this project can be found HERE on flickr.

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