UPDATE: The NESPoise will go on sale as the Rabbit Engineering Model G1 starting November 1, 2014 – see the product page for details.
Meet the NESPoise – a posable, desktop NES clone arcade machine. I’m very happy with how this machine turned out – especially the industrial design aspect. So how did this thing come to be? Well, I had a bunch of leftover parts from a couple of projects, and decided to use them up – an arcade stick plus buttons, and a whole Retrobit RES – these little NES clones are fantastic for modding into other projects. The answer was obvious – time to make a mini desktop NES arcade machine (well, it seemed obvious at the time).
If I was to make a desktop (i.e. non-portable) machine, I decided to go for a large screen – 7″. I found a car DVD screen that runs on between 8.5V and 13V on Amazon for about $40 – better not fry it. You can set 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio on it with a little wireless remote; I happen to like 16:9 so that’s what’s shown in the pictures. Then I did some sketches. First idea was a traditional arcade machine shape:
Here is an OpenSCAD test:
Let’s face it, that is pretty boring, and due to the constraints of having to insert the NES cartridge, is a little wide at the bottom. Plus – big problem – the viewing angles of these car screens is not great, so you would have to scrunch down in front of it to see all the colours properly (I noticed this problem on the NESPo, but there it didn’t matter because you hold the entire device up to your face).
Then while sitting at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo (while manning the booth for the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo – represent!) I though, hey, why not go crazy and do a cylindrical NES arcade machine? It opens like an old jewelry box, and has the screen on the inside of the top half, and the controls on the bottom half. Moral of the story – always take a sketchbook with you, you never know when inspiration will strike:
In terms of pure design, it was interesting, but hard to pull off – lots of hinges and springs that would reduce the chances of success a little too much. So back to the sketchbook. While sitting at my desk and looking at my lamp, I was reminded of the traditional 1930s British Anglepoise lamp (designed by George Carwardine, who was actually a car suspension designer), which I have always liked. This lamp allows you to pose the head any way you need, while maintaining the angle by use of counter-tension in the parallelogram shaped lower arm:
Americans often mistake this as a Luxo lamp; but Luxo lamps are actually a licensed and modified design by Swede Jacob Jacobsen – you can tell a Luxo from an Anglepoise because Luxo has parallelograms both above and below the elbow, while Angleposie has one below the elbow only.
So what about a NES arcade that is based on the Anglepoise concept? It would allow you to angle the screen as you need, and would definitely have a cool mid-century retro look (let’s face it, the NES-001 was basically a plastic brick, and could do with a makeover). Some more sketches:
This was looking very promising, so time to hit OpenSCAD to see if all the pieces would work.
It would be a multi material project – the black parts would be black 3D printed PLA, while the red parts would be varnished luaun plywood, to give it that great woodgrain VCS style retro look. The arcade buttons and stick top would also be black.
Now to worry about the design. It’s actually two design problems – the arm which must be adjustable but capable of holding up the weight of the screen, and the base which must enclose all the electronics and provide a stable cartridge slot. I spent a fairly long time on design, because I learned with the NESPo that you can save a lot of time, frustration and material by simply reviewing part fit more carefully in OpenSCAD before printing. It really paid off – I only had to redesign one piece, and that was a fairly small one. All of my multi-hour prints were correct the first time. Here are some of the almost final OpenSCAD views:
The arm and screen casing
Unlike the traditional Anglepoise design, I opted to not use a sprung parallelogram at all – that’s fairly complex, and really best done in metal. So I took a chance that I could generate enough friction using a threaded rod and nut. I printed a cylinder that housed a nut, and the two of these compress the arms against a central cylinder. Turns out this generated more than enough friction to hold the weight of the screen in place.
The screen casing itself is fairly straightforward – a rounded box with internal bracing to hold everything in place.
The screen casing is the largest single piece I’ve printed yet – it took up most of the Replicator’s print surface, and took around five and a half hours. People generally warn against printing large pieces as they warp and shrink, and while I did get a little shrinking on one of the corners, the piece cane out pretty well.
Once the casing was printed, I cut a frame from luaun plywood on the CnC router. This traps the actual screen in place, and gives the casing a lot of torsional strength.
Here is the weight carrying test of the arm:
And of course, testing to ensure I didn’t kill the screen while putting it in the case:
This was the complex part in terms of printing – to begin with, in order to fit both the arcade stick and the NES cartridge, the body would be too large to print as one piece. So while designing for structural strength, enclosing all the bits, and being easy to assemble, I had to figure out a way to split it into sub-assemblies that could be glued without creating ugly seams.
Here is ultimately what I came up with: A five part base. The front of the machine would be a single piece so that there is no glue seam facing the player. The sides and back are four parts. The reason for having four parts is to ensure that the cartridge slot prints correctly (avoiding overhangs, etc). Here are some exploded views of the base:
All those holes in the cross wall reduce the amount of plastic used in the print, but also (more importantly) allowing easy assembly to enabling the threading cables through between the front and back halves of the base.
The five parts took about fourteen hours total to print. After my good experience with Zen Toolworks white PLA on the NESPo, I decide to use their black PLA for the base, and it did not disappoint. It’s a very deep black, only a little shiny, and the spool did not give any feed issues during the long prints. Here is the front piece of the body, fresh out of the printer after five hours:
In case you are wondering, I use an aluminium print plate with blue painter’s tape, and regular L’Oreal hairspray. Using all this and leveling the print plate after every large assembly gives me great adhesion during prints. Here are the rest of the body parts:
Once all five parts (and gluing reinforcements) were printed, it was time for a dry fit – just stack/balance the parts to ensure they fit together. This will let you know if any of your parts are too distorted/shrunk to glue. Happily, all five were just fine.
Then the nerve wracking bit – gluing all the pieces together. This carries two risks – one is that you misalign something while gluing (meaning you need to reprint, as superglue makes an inseparable bond between PLA parts); and the other risk is that superglue fumes will cloud up the beautiful deep black color of the PLA parts while setting (superglue gives off fumes while setting that will leave a milky residue on whatever they land). By careful clamping and correct ventilation I managed to avoid both of these pitfalls.
At this point I cut the top and bottom decks of the body on the CnC router. The top was luaun plywood (to match the screen casing), and the bottom was MDF. The plywood was given eight coats of satin varnish, while the bottom was sprayed matte black. At this point, I could assemble the entire case and test the fit of everything together before moving to assembling the electronics. It is very important to test as you build, so you can catch errors/bugs as early as possible.
Once everything lined up, I tapped all the holes in the case to allow the #6 screws to close the whole thing up. Tapping is fairly boring, so I spent the time listening to Seattle band Cumulus – it’s good modding music.
First step in assembling the electronics was removing the Retrobit RES from it’s case, and adding enough ribbon cables/connectors to allow me to move things to where I needed them. Once this was done (but before assembly in the base) I tested all the electronics to ensure I hadn’t missed or broken anything. The only thing I modded in the electronics was to replace the Retrobit voltage regulator with a beefy 7805 on a nice big heatsink. And of course, the power LED was replaced with a logo light, similar to that in the NESPo (more on this baby later).
Actual assembly was done in layers. The reason for this is that there are a lot of cables inside the body, and you want a nice, tangle-proof channel for the cartridge to slide into the connector – it would be extremely annoying to have to deal with the cart getting snagged with cables. This kind of thing makes the difference between a cool thing hacked together, and a device designed with the user’s experience as first priority. Everything should be smooth and trouble free, from the feel of the buttons, to inserting the cart, to having the controls nicely spaced out; the user wants a great end-to-end experience with every aspect of your device.
Here is layer 0, which has most of the electronics attached to the base (with hot glue, of course!):
Then above that is layer 1, which is the bottom of the cartridge channel, and the Retrobit NES main board (with the cartridge slot):
Then layer 2, which is the top cover of the cartridge channel.
This is how it looks when a cartridge is inserted (making a delicious cartridge sandwich):
And here is the magic outcome – when looking at the back of the machine directly into the cartridge slot, notice how there are no cables in the way (and it makes for a very neat looking product all round):
On the left of the cartridge slot you can see one cable – that is the video power and signal, but it is actually behind the cartridge slot, so cannot get in the way. Also notice the power socket (bottom, just left of center), ready to take a 9V wall wart (power supply is at least 9V to reliably power the screen, but you could safely use a 12V wart also, as the 7805 is rated up to 18V).
And of course, the logo light (which acts as the power light). This is becoming a trademark of sorts!
It uses the same design as that in the NESPo – a frame with the lettering, inside which is a “lens” made of natural PLA, into which go three LEDs.
Here we are, ready to close up:
Screw everything together, and hey presto.
If you’d like to try building your own, you can get the source files at Thingiverse.