Build and modify the Ploopy trackball

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It all started with Ploupy.

“What a goofy name for a trackball,” I tweeted to myself. “Ploopy,” several people replied. A friend commented that it looks like MS Trackball Explorer, an iconic trackball. “That would be a funny gag if I really wanted to have a trackball,” I thought. (I wasn’t a “trackball person.”) The problem is that anything taken to its logical conclusion just becomes sincerity and a year later I’ve not only bought a Ploupybut I completely rebuilt it and got so far down the trackball rabbit hole that I had a new one made entirely from scratch.

I became a Sicko Trackball.

If you haven’t lived through 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 were much more common then, and trackball enthusiasts say it can be an easier and more ergonomic way to interface with the user interface, especially for people with limited mobility.

Goofy’s name aside, the idea motivating Ploopy reflects something that’s been circulating in the DIY keyboard community for some time; namely, open source design and flexible firmware. Files for all products sold by Ploopy are on Github for anyone resourceful enough to get them made, and the device itself works QMK, one of the few lightweight keyboard firmwares. Devices are easy to remap and customize without installing invasive bloatware like Logitech G Hub or Razer Synapse, and many Ploopy products use the same sensors and switches found in high-end mice.

It’s a world I was more than familiar with after building a split ergonomic keyboard called Breath. The thing that sold me on the Ploopy was the Nano, a small buttonless trackball with a 1.5 inch billiard ball that fits right between the two halves of my split keyboard. For $45 CAD and just a tiny bit of soldering, I could have a little guy conveniently placed in the middle of my keyboard to make small, finished adjustments to the screen instead of having to linger over my mouse every time I needed it changes something. Also, since I was already a split-keyboard freak, I could program a button on each half of the keyboard using layers, to act like mouse buttons one, two, and three.

“What is this,” I said, then clicked buy.

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

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

Then I discovered mods.

Another element of the open source design philosophy that drives Ploopy and the keyboard community as a whole is iteration. Ploopy’s products are 3D printed, and since all the paperwork is there, you can 3D print whatever case you want for your Ploopy if you have access to a nice enough printer.

The first mod that made my jaw drop was by a sick user on the Ploopy subreddit (I’m aware of the absurdity of those two words together). A beautiful sand-colored trackball with a specially designed stainless steel ball bearing to match their headphones and keyboard, a tan The number. Also, my good friend and trackball-sick colleague Jon informed me that people have gone beyond the simple 3D printed roller bearings that come with the Ploopy and reprinted their accommodations use BTUs, or “ball transfer units”, which can move more freely than static or roller bearings and with much less friction. Eventually someone downloaded a Mod BTU for the Ploopy Nano, and the path for me was clear. I ordered some BTUs, a steel ball and made my preparations.

It turns out, however, that Ploopy isn’t the only game in town. While I was planning my upgrade, I heard about the work of Jfedor2a Redditor who had created his own open-source PCB [printed circuit board] and a breakout board for rapid prototyping of new trackballs and mice using the relatively new but revolutionary RP2040 chip from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. As I write this he has uploaded at least 10 absolutely alien looking trackballs and mice, including a a vaguely pyramid with a scroll wheela trackball with two trackballsa trackball where you can spin the ball to scrolland a spherical trackball perfect for orb reflection.

Making the circuit board for a mouse is not as difficult as it used to be. Provided you have the Gerber files (a vector file of a PCB), a BOM (Bill of Materials) and a CPL (Component Placement List) file, manufacturers (like JLCPCB or ALLPCB) won’t just print your PCB for you, they’ll sell you all the parts you need, and solder those pesky little surface mount components right to the board for you (provided there isn’t, say, a shortage of parts ). I placed an order for five trackball PCBs, and my aforementioned trackball friend printed me some retro, transparent, seafoam shells for not only my Ploopy Nano, but a big brother called Trackball 7 which uses a full size billiard ball.

When put together, both were beautiful. The newly upgraded Nano’s BTUs rolled smooth and easy, a marked improvement over the base model, and the clear plastic gave off an otherworldly glow. But all did not go smoothly. While the chrome steel ball I got was wonderful to the touch, the surface needed a bit of lapping to get it to track properly. Some on Reddit fixed this by sanding theirs to remove the shine from the finish, and another recommended using an acrylic topcoat and another chemical bluing. This is probably why traditional trackball manufacturers like Logitech use a flickering trackball instead.

I had made a fatal mistake when manufacturing the circuit boards for Jfedor’s trackball: two of the voltage regulators on the board were out of stock, so I looked up equivalents on Digi-Key (a distributor of electronic components ), soldered those tiny suckers and loaded the firmware. Now I have a fully functional and very strange 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 customized it to be truly mine from scratch, and in the process of making these items, I had not only gained more confidence in my abilities, but an understanding clear of how I could take up the torch and build something new too. Turns out, there’s very little stopping you from making your own trackball, if you’re that kind of sick.

But of course, once you are on this path, there is no rest. Of course, these bearings are pretty one smooth, but could they be… smoother? I could apply a dry coat of tungsten disulfide to the BTUs, as I had read on the gun forums. Or could I have my trackball coated in something like Cerakote or DLC (diamond-like carbon)? Or heck, what if I just built a keyboard with a trackball, like the Eccentric, the Splitballerthe Keyball46the inoor this one I saw some first models of. I have those too circular touchpads in the mail I bought after talking to Freznell on their board of directors — maybe this is the way to go? And now that I know how to swap out a microswitch, why not disassemble my mouse and replace the switch with silent ones I impulse ordered from AliExpress?

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

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