Teardown: Optimus Mini Three Keyboard from Art. Lebedev Studio
The Optimus-103 Keyboard captured the imagination of the geek community with its 103 OLED keys capable of displaying user-programmable, context-sensitive information. This yet-to-be-released product first appeared as a 3D rendering and its mystique has kept myriad forums alive with discussions of display technologies, power requirements, OLED life, and cold fusion as an alternative to USB power for warming your coffee mug. As skepticism grew regarding the feasibility of a consumer-oriented 103-key OLED keyboard, Art. Lebedev Studio surprised us with the accelerated release of the Optimus mini three keyboard. With only three keys, this “preview” is a long way from a full-sized Optimus-103 Keyboard, but it gives us a chance (okay, an excuse) to play with an OLED-based product. We ordered our Optimus mini three keyboards from ThinkGeek, our favorite geek outlet for geek outlets. The packaging consists of an outer paperboard box with the product captured in a molded fiber insert.
Initial attempts at glamour shots were a bit…uhhh…fuzzy. Perhaps the assembly llamas aren’t wearing their cleansuits?
Once we’d de-fuzzed the product with our Falcon-brand Dust-off® compressed air, our attention turned to what was actually inside the box. Besides the Optimus mini three keyboard itself, the box contained a small, card-stock insert that promised us software and a detailed instruction manual should we visit optimus.artlebedev.com. We did so and, indeed, found the driver and instruction manual within a few clicks.
Art. Lebedev currently offers two colors: black (shown) and silver. The silver enclosure is metallic-painted plastic, which some of us generally don’t care for; however the overall lines of the product are clean. We did get a bit carried away and took a bunch of glamour shots. We’ll only subject you to one more before moving on.
Taking it Apart Flipping the Optimus Mini Three Keyboard over reveals two rubber feet, but no obvious fasteners. Crossing our fingers, we peeled back the rubber feet, certainly voiding our warranty.
Feet gone, we see two screws. Art. Lebedev, thankfully, has not used ultrasonic welding or tamper-proof fasteners.
The entire back cover lifts straight up and off, revealing a tidy green board with no bottom-side components.
The board can be gently lifted up and flipped over; the OLED data cables keep us from removing it completely.
Removing a Key To remove a key, we first must disconnect the data cable. The data cables are standard 26-conductor, 0.5mm flat flex cables attached to the circuit board with Suncagey connectors. If you wanted to get your hands on your own connectors for these OLED assemblies, the Hirose FH19SC-26S-0.5SH(05) (Digikey: HFN526CT-ND) is probably easier to obtain in small quantities. There is a small amount of adhesive on each end of the brown connector latch to secure it. It was easy enough to pry the brown latch out with fingernails or a flat-headed screwdriver—taking care not to apply too much force.
With the brown latch disengaged, the ribbon cable pulled out of the connector with no force.
To remove the key, we first pulled off the switch contact—the translucent white rubber cup with a conductive carbon center. Then, pinching the two black clips towards the center of the key, we pushed the key out of the chassis, covering our fingers with grease.
The key lifted out, but was retained with small plastic clips that snap onto two metal rods. Popping these off allowed us to completely remove the key.
Removing the OLED We removed the OLED from the key by sliding it out, taking care not to snag the data cable.
With the key out, we finally saw the MagnaChip HM16EP7002 OLED module in its full, pixelated glory.
We’re not completely sure, but it appears that MagnaChip originally developed just the controller IC. The OLED glass itself may have come from Orion OLED Co., LTD., who licensed the OLED technology from Kodak. The HM16EP7002 COG OLED module does appear to be currently manufactured by MagnaChip. Orion offers their own modules, which are similar to the HM16EP7002. The MagnaChip OLED module is 96 x 96 pixels with “262k” (18-bit) color depth; however, Art. Lebedev has chosen to operate the module in its optional 16-bit color mode—probably to simplify programming, reduce memory requirements, and send less data over the USB for faster updates. OLED life span is a touchy subject, and it’s difficult to get anyone to commit to numbers when it comes to this. However, Orion was kind enough to send us a datasheet and confirmed that the operating life is longer than 10,000 hours. Specifically, they gave us this spec: “Operating life time(30% ON, 50cd/ m2) : Longer than 10,000 hours“. So, after about 1.1 years of typical use, you can expect the brightness of the display to significantly diminish and pixels will probably start to fail. However, in the meantime, you can enjoy a more vivid image and a much wider viewing angle than a standard LCD can provide. For you laptop users, OLED also uses less power than a color LCD. We carefully peeled back the OLED glass to see the shiny backside and a 41-pin 0.3mm pitch flex connector. This one appears to be compatible with Hirose part FH26-41S-0.3SHW(05) (Digikey Part: HFQ341CT-ND).
Tidying up the disassembled parts to inspect the circuit board, we noticed the weights inserted into each side of the keyboard. Since it is mostly plastic, the weights give the unit some heft, suggesting quality while keeping it securely on your desk.
Looking at the Circuit We find several things of interest on the main circuit board. First, the primary processor is a Microchip PIC18F8722-I/PT with an external 4MHz Oscillator. The PIC, which is one of the beefier of Microchip’s line of products, has an on-board 4x PLL so it could be running around 16MHz. The PIC only has 3.8KB of RAM, so an external BSI BS62LV1027 Asynchronous 128KB 70ns SRAM provides enough working space for the image data buffers.
A switching converter and copious capacitors boost the 5V USB to provide 16V for the OLED modules. In addition to an approximately 3V supply for the OLED controller chips, the OLED modules require a high operating voltage between 10-20V. This converter switches at about 1MHz, but is a bit noisy when the OLEDs are on. By noisy, we do mean audible noise. For a musical treat, hold the Optimus to your ear while starting up the Configurator software. When the OLEDs are first turned on, you’ll hear a pop and a “tune”, followed by a persistent, high-pitched squeal. Thankfully, this isn’t as noticeable when the unit is on your desk.
The Microchip PIC18F8722 does not have a USB interface, so we turn our attention to the Prolific PL-2303X (Datasheet here) USB to Serial Bridge Controller. This chip provides a very simple means for adding USB to a non-USB microcontroller. When the Prolific drivers are installed, the chip appears to the system as a standard serial port, which applications can read from or write to. The data is sent over USB to the chip, which translates it for a microcontroller’s standard UART.
The PL-2303X is a very quick way to add USB communication to a project, but it is rather limited. While the chip itself can be programmed to signal to the microcontroller at up to 6Mbps, a PIC running at around 16Mhz won’t be able to speak that quickly. So, full speed USB speeds of 12Mbps can not be achieved with this solution. This is probably why Art. Lebedev’s site states that the Optimus mini three can only update at 3fps. Though it can speed development time, having a separate USB controller adds cost to the system. If Art. Lebedev Studio starts producing these in much higher quantities, it will probably make sense for them to use a microcontroller with integrated full-speed USB. This will lower the system cost and let them achieve a faster framerate for animation. If they move to such a solution, they will probably have to conform to a USB approved device class or face writing their own drivers. In either case, they won’t be at the mercy of Prolific’s driver and can get even more creative with their software. A Quick Peek at the Software We won’t dwell on the software since it’s nascent and Art. Lebedev seems to hope that the development community will create great things. However, it’s worth taking a quick peek at the software in its current state. The Configurator software from Art. Lebedev for the Optimus mini three is simple and streamlined. We downloaded v1.0.28b, which installed without a problem. It neatly tucks itself in the system tray and seems minimally invasive. Configuration is straightforward with its clean interface.
The Configurator even provides access to advanced settings such as orientation, white balance, and gamma.
The Configurator does not support more than one Optimus mini three at a time. If more than one is plugged into a system, only one is activated. Considering how the Prolific USB chips work, this appears to be only a limitation of the Configurator software itself. In theory, it should be possible to support multiple units and, perhaps, future versions will. When switching applications with defined layouts, it takes a few seconds for the keys to update. It’s slow enough to be unusable for power users. Unfortunately, this is a hardware limitation and will not likely be improved unless Art. Lebedev upgrades their hardware design. Those of us who find the delay annoying are more likely to drop the application-sensitive layout usage and keep the Optimus mini three set to dedicated functions. For example, it’s quite nice to have a hardware device that always displays what’s playing in iTunes, or the current weather, etc. We were quite happy to see that Art. Lebedev is supporting the development community with a plug-in API for the Configurator and example code for working with the Optimus mini three directly. Both are well-commented and simple to understand with some prior programming knowledge. Because they’ve documented the device’s actual communications protocol and provided a sample library for accessing it, it’s quite possible we’ll see some exciting 3rd party applications that extend the Optimus mini three’s capabilities and support multiple devices. A very spiffy device indeed. For more information, you can visit Art Lebedev’s Optimus mini three site: http://www.artlebedev.com/everything/optimus-mini/ The Optimus mini three comes in aluminum or black. You can purchase one for $159.96 at their store: http://store.artlebedev.com/catalog/computer_add-ons/optimus-mini-three/