Introduction: Dual Screen Digital Picture Frame & Family Center

About: I like to take things apart, & put them back together. There's always bits left over. I enjoy repurposing stuff so I don't have to throw it out.
     In answer to my friends urgings, I am making this instructable.  Unfortunately, this means that I do not have any "making of" pictures, nor any actual prices for parts used.  

     I have a home for wayward tech, and was looking at my pile of "donated" computer parts.  Amongst them was an old T23 Thinkpad laptop and a 17" Lenovo L171P LCD monitor gathering dust.  I had read of Digital Picture Frames being made from old laptops, and thought I should give it a go.  To make mine something more than what was available from a retailer, I made a Dual Screen Digital Picture Frame.  The Frame has a touch screen interface, 802.11 n wireless, and USB ports for peripherals.  The software is configured to run through photos from a networked source, mix in some quotes, and give access to local weather forecasts plus a family calendar.  There is also remote access software, and a program that puts the Frame in stand-by to save some power.

     If this was made from scratch, it would not be a cheap photo frame.  If purchased, an old used laptop would be around $200, the LCD around $100, and the touch screen kit would be another $100.  However, since I had most of the parts on hand, and there's nothing out there like it yet, I figured why not.  I think the important bit of this build is the software configuration for the two LCD screens.

Step 1: The Hardware - Tech

This is the list of what has been shoved into the frames:  

T23 Thinkpad laptop
D-Link DWA 130 Wireless USB Adapter
Dynex™ - 2-Port USB 2.0 PCMCIA Notebook Card
8GB CF card with laptop drive adapter
4GB USB flash drive
Generic USB 4-port hub
Touch screen kit with USB adapter
Lenovo L171P LCD Monitor
Extension cord

     The T23 Thinkpad laptop I had on hand had seen better days.  The motherboard had just been replaced, the hard drive had died for a second time, the CD-ROM had ceased to read, and the plastics had been glued unsuccessfully several times.  For a laptop, it was past its prime.  But for a new life as a Digital Photo Frame, it was just getting started.  The 14.1" LCD screen can handle up to 1024 x 768 and 32 bit color.  Great for photos.  The processor, an old 1.13GHz PIII, and 512 MB of RAM are just above netbook status, and yet the laptop weighs over 5 pounds.  It does still work, though, so now to get it ready.  

     The laptop hard drive went bad, so I replaced it with a 8GB CF card with a laptop adapter.  I have read all of the horror stories of using compact flash for an OS drive, but I threw caution to the wind.  Besides, the CD drive was hosed, so there went any ideas for a Live CD OS.  I took off the plastic of the LCD screen and the palm rests.  I kept the bottom plastic intact to hold the motherboard, fans, and battery.  Yeah, I am keeping the battery in the laptop, in case of power failure.  All my other tech has battery back-ups, so I threw caution to the wind again.  It does increase the overall weight, but I over-engineered the frames with the weight in mind.

     I had to keep the keyboard attached, because the power button is integrated into the keyboard.  I am leaving the back of the picture frame open for access to the power button, should the need arise.

     Now the T23 Thinkpad did not come with any wireless cards, or USB 2.0 ports; only two USB 1.1 ports.  The wireless USB adapter found in my treasure chest of tech is a D-Link DWA 130.  It prefers a USB 2.0 port.  So, I grabbed a Dynex™ - 2-Port USB 2.0 PCMCIA Notebook Card.  I also tossed in a generic 4GB USB flash drive for swap space into the second USB 2.0 port.  I have also ordered a touch screen kit from e-bay.  It took forever to arrive from China, but it was worth it.  The touch screen plugged into one of the two old USB 1.1 ports.  The other 1.1 port is home to a generic 4-port hub that I had in my parts pile.  I have placed the 4-port hub at the bottom of the photo frame.  This has come in handy for connecting USB drives, keyboards, mice, and the like.  

     The Touch Screen Kit came from China, so the shipping was more than the actual kit.  I could only afford the one kit for the laptop's 14.1" LCD screen.  This is unfortunate, but workable.  The touch screen kit for the other 17" LCD screen is more expensive due to it's larger size.  Having one touch screen is okay for now, though having both screens with a touch interface would be so cool.  The touch screen comes with the pressure sensitive glass, USB interface controller board, and USB cable.  The glass is sandwiched between the foam core matte  of the frame and the laptop LCD. The controller board is secured within the frame, and the cable routed to the USB 1.1 port on the laptop.

     The other frame houses the stripped Lenovo LCD Monitor, and the laptop power adapter.  The external monitor is 17" viewable with 1280 x 1024 resolution.  I had both displays set to the same 1024 x 768 resolution.  With all of the adapters and such jammed into the laptop frame, there was little room for the laptop power brick.  I wanted to minimise the amount of cables hanging out of the frames, so the power cables for the monitor and the laptop power adapter are coiled up and plugged into the extension cord inside the second frame.  The extension cord is the only cord visible and dangling from the photo frames.  There are two other cords running between the frames; the laptop DC power from the power brick, and the VGA cable.  Those are hidden between the frames and invisible from the front.

Step 2: The Hardware - Frame Construction

The frames themselves are nothing special:

Custom frame spars
4' x 8' white foam core board
1/4' thick plywood
Nuts and bolts
Paint, glue, Velcro, and staples
Picture frame wire and Sleeve-Type Hollow Wall Anchors (a.k.a. Molly Bolts)

     The LCD's are not standard photo sizes, so using standard photo frames and pre-cut mattes are out.  My local art supply carries frame spars of different lengths that can be mixed and matched to create custom frames.  

     I used the foam core board as cheap matte material for both frames.  The mattes look okay from afar, but are far from perfect.  They will do for now, but I may save up some cash to get better mattes made later.  I cut some of the extra pieces of foam core into spacers to hold the LCD's in the center of the frame.  

     The plywood is used to give each frame some depth to hold the all of the tech goodness by creating a shadow box behind each of the frames.  The plywood was cut into 2" strips and fit inside the frames.  Vents were cut in some areas to allow for cooling, cable routing, and access to the USB ports.  The resultant boxes were painted black to blend in with the frames.  I glued and stapled the boxes to the frames.  I also used the plywood to make trays to hold the tech inside the frames.  The nuts and bolts hold the tech to the trays, and the trays to the frames.  Velcro is used to hold the peripherals in place, such as the USB wireless adapter and the USB hub.  

     I am leaving the back of the frames open for access to power buttons and to allow for more cooling.   That, and I'm too lazy to cut more plywood.  I made sure that the frames are very sturdy to hold up all of the weight.  

     Speaking of all of the weight, the frames need to be well supported when hung on the wall.  I used molly bolts and double stranded picture wire to suspend the frames.  This was the most difficult part of the build.  The frames are heavy, cumbersome, and attached by the short lengths of VGA cable and the laptop power cord.  It quickly became a two-person job to hang these up on the wall.  After much perseverance, many epithets and euphemisms, and sheer luck, the frames were mounted to the wall securely.  

Step 3: The Software

This is the important part of the frame:

Windows XP SP3
Free Anti-Virus
Google Desktop
Multi Photo Quotes
Remote Desktop Control Software
Touch Kit
Free Virtual Keyboard

     My suggestion is to make sure the software works prior to dismantling the laptop and LCD monitor.  Give it a run through and shake down for a week to get the bugs out.  Once that is done, and the software has been massaged to a happy point, then start gutting the tech.

     Now, I did originally want to use Linux for this project.  I spend a several months going through multiple distros, but it turns out that the laptop video card, the S3 Super Savage IX/C, has drivers in Linux that does not support an extended desktop.  Once I switched over to Windows XP, everything came together in a few hours.  I could have used Bart PE to whittle down XP to a slimmer OS.  However, I never know what I will do with the system later, so I decided to keep it a full blown load.

     The laptop came with only 512 Mb RAM, so running XP is a bit slow.  I have purchased some more RAM, to bring it up to 1Gb.  It certainly helps with XP's responsiveness.  To reduce wear on the OS drive, I moved the page file to the 4GB USB flash drive in the USB 2.0 port.  It's not perfect, but it serves its current function.

     Since it is a fully bloated Windows XP install, an antivirus program is required.  Currently, I'm using Microsoft Security Essentials, though AVG, Avira, Avast, or whatever flavor of the month antivirus will do as long as it is updated often.  I look for something that won't use too many resources in the background and is free.

     Now, with XP comes the ability to embed a website into the desktop.  I have used that feature to embed our web-based family calendar into the external LCD monitor frame.  The calendar is set to use the whole screen.  Our family uses the Windows Live Calendar.  It's nothing special, and fits our needs.  I do have a small complaint about using this calendar.  Whenever the desktop is refreshed, the calendar defaults to the day I started using the calendar and to the Month view.  We prefer to use the Agenda view, and if it could refresh to today's date that would be nice.  So, until I find some magical code or setting to enable proper views, I adjust the calendar every morning for everyone else.  Not perfect, but workable.

     For the weather forecast, I decided to use Google Desktop widgets.  I picked a couple of them just to see which one works for us.  I have also added a moon phase widget and system monitor as well.  I use the system monitor to keep an eye on the laptop at a glance.  I'm a gauges and dials kind of guy.  

     Now, the heart of this Digital Picture Frame is the Multi Photo Quotes software.  It is located here:

It supports multiple monitors, adds quotes, and works.  I could not ask for more.  I have been able to configure it to read from a network share, and have added a personal quotes file.  The network share is accessible by everyone, so that pictures can be added or removed as needed.  I am very pleased with this bit of code.  And it is free, though I have drop a donation because I think it is definitely worth it.  

     For remote access to the Digital Photo Frame, I use Remobo from /.  It's a cross-platform IPN (Instant Private Network) application that I use for all of my computers.  It's easy to set-up and use, and works from my Linux and Windows boxes.  And it's currently free.  The built-in Windows Remote Desktop software is okay, but it acts funny with the dual screens, and generally makes a mess of things.  I like VNC better.  I have also used TeamViewer, but the display is not as crisp as using VNC through Remobo.  There are many other choices as well.  The remote access is great for me if I need to work on the frame away from home.  

     The Touch Screen Kit comes with Touch Kit software to calibrate it.  I made sure that it had drivers for both Windows and Linux, just in case.  The driver should come from the touch screen kit vendor.  It works pretty well for my sausage fingers.  Also, for the touch interface, I adjusted the Windows Desktop theme to have larger menu and desktop icons.  My only complaint is the same with any touch interface: fingerprint smudges! It's still really cool to use the touch screen, though.  

     To add more functionality, I use a virtual keyboard.  I did try the one that comes with XP, but found it lacking.  I downloaded the Free Virtual Keyboard from /.  It works well.  I have adjusted it to a workable size, and am pretty satisfied with it.  Now, It does not replace a physical keyboard, but it does work for causal notes and such.  

     Now the other key bit of software is WakeupOnStandBy from:

This is setup to put the Digital Photo Frame into standby in the wee hours after midnight and turn it back on in the morning.  Technically, it is not necessary, but it does help to save power, and some wear and tear on the screens.  It works very well, though the screen saver does not come on after it wakes up the laptop.  I'm sure that it is something I have not set up right, but it does help in the morning as the family starts the day.  With the screen saver off, the calendar and weather forecast is up for everyone to see during breakfast.  So, I'm not upset that the screen saver does not come up, but just curious as to why.

Step 4: Current Usage

     I threw this Digital Picture Frame together to see if I could.  I wanted something that would be useful to our household.  I am happy to report that I am successful to that end.  

     The laptop frame desktop has the Google Desktop with the weather and moon phase gadgets.  I have pulled the system monitor gadget into the middle of the desktop.  Remobo starts up automatically, and the buddy window is also up on the desktop.  The Free Virtual Keyboard starts minimised to the toolbar, so it is accessible at any time.  The desktop icons include shortcuts to the virtual keyboard, to the touch screen software, to the photo screen saver configuration, and to start the photo screen saver.

     The other LCD screen is exclusive to the calendar.  Again, to bring the calendar view to my liking with today's Agenda view, I need to either use a mouse, or remote access through a another computer.  It only needs to be done once a day, though.

     The photos cycle through randomly, with quotes sprinkled throughout.  Everyone stops by to look at the photos that were previously trapped unseen on a hard drive, or to read the definitions and quips that pop up.  Everyone knows that to check the weather forecast or the family calendar, they only need to touch the laptop screen.  That stops the screen saver, making the stuff on the desktop visible.  To turn the photo screen saver back on, the desktop shortcut just needs to be double tapped.  For a birthday, the screen saver was changed to a marquee, and "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" scrolled across both screens.   I have added some alarms (timed events) to remind the kids about feeding the cats, and for the school bus using the Windows Scheduled Tasks. There is also a shortcut on the desktop to control the Jukebox computer in the living room.

     I am very happy with the way the Dual Screen Digital Photo Frame has turned out.

Step 5: The Future?

Ah, projects are really never finished, only abandoned.

     For future improvements, I would like to get a small wireless mouse with a small transmitter. This would be used to work on the calendar screen, which currently does not have a touch interface. I have an old one currently, but the transmitter is 2" long.  It hangs down and is very noticeable. I have tried some other dual monitor screen savers, but the laptop video card only has 16Mb of RAM and struggles with them. For software tweaks, I would only wish the calendar would refresh to today's date and the the Agenda view.

      The Digital Picture Frame currently hangs in the dining room. I could start going crazy and adding Caller ID for inbound calls, or an interface for Jukebox software to pipe some tunes into the dining area. That would mean adding decent speakers. Maybe SMS/IM texting clients can be added to leave messages for the household in the screen saver software. A webcam could be attached and security monitoring software added. The possibilities are only limited by my imagination and coding skills. Mostly by my lack of coding skills.

     I am finished with this project... for now.