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In The Lab
Mostly Harmless - A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Case Mod
by chris

Mostly Harmless Background
I provide computers and system support for a local SF convention's (Marcon) art show. At this year's con, I tried out a NAS drive enclosure as the file server. All of the systems could access the drive over the network just fine, but when it came time to start processing data in and out of the shared database, the file quickly became corrupted. I ended up moving the database to a spare notebook system (running Windows XP Pro) to resolve the access problems. I then decided that I needed to assemble a small, dedicated file server that would provide some data redundancy and handle the necessary client connections. The other phrase that kept crossing my mind during the setup and troubleshooting was "don't panic..." That started me thinking about using the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (AKA HHGG or H2G2) as a case mod theme for the project.

About the Game
Hitchhikers Guide is an old Infocom text adventure game published way back in 1984 (shades of George Orwell). I ran the CPM version on an Osborne CP/M computer back then. (Wow! 64K of RAM – who would ever need more than that?) "In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri."1 The red and yellow button came with the game, the blue and white version was passed out by Infocom at Comdex that year.

Mostly Harmless System Specs:
  • PC Chips M861G system board
  • AMD Athlon 3200+ CPU
  • Zalman CNPS7700 CPU cooler
  • 2GB OCZ DDR-800 memory
  • ATI 256 MB Radeon 9250 Video (*downgrade)
  • Two 160 GB SATA 2.5 in notebook hard drives (*upgrade)
  • Samsung DVD-RW drive
  • Matrix Orbital MX620 PLED (Polymeric LED) display
  • Pyle PLVG7IR LCD Touch Screen monitor
  • Mini-Key USB Keyboard DGPN-570
  • 500 Watt PSU

System Highlights:

  • An integrated "guide" using a small LCD monitor and keypad

  • "42" (The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything)

  • "Don't Panic" in large friendly letters (Original "Don't Panic" button from Infocom game)

  • The little green guy, featured on the game box and early books

  • A yellow slab-like appearance (AKA Vogon Construction)

  • A large "do not push" red button, that does not affect the computer operation - We have problems with kids and other guests pushing buttons on my other case mods which are being used as client systems for data entry.

  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text game (Infocom) available for play using WinFrotz and special version.

  • Windows slideshow screen saver with Rod Lord (BBC series) illustrations, game box art, screen grabs from BBC online HHGG game version, and several (custom) related images.

  • Video clips of original (Rod Lord) animations used in first (BBC) HHGG video series. (Cool! I found a cool Audio/Video/Image screen saver on SourceForge.net; It doesn't have any simple way to set image display timing, but supports mixing all of the various media types. I captured the narrated Guide animations from the original BBC movie and placed these in the same directory as the Rod Lord and other screenshot images. I had to add file type of BMP, JPG, and GIF to the setup, but everything seemed to play back just fine. Check out Dave's AV Screensaver).

  • Microscopic space fleet landing bay (skipped)

  • H2G2 "42" screen saver (available, not used)

  • HHGG Screen saver with slideshow illustrations (by Rod Lord) from HHGG series. (available, not used.)

Construction Notes for the H2G2 File Server

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Planning sketches for using a tapered case. The back panel view illustrates system board placement and planned orientation.

Work log 6-28-08
I took a (slightly damaged) small form factor chassis and stripped off about everything I could. The top power supply tray and dual 5.25" drive bays came off clean. I placed the micro ATX system board with heat sink inside and marked its position to get an idea of clearance for drives and the power supply. The angle of the case is such that a power supply unit just fit in front of the system board and left clearance for air flow out of the case. However, the power plug and switch had to be relocated so they were not positioned on the top of the case.

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A short desktop case was stripped of the top PSU/drive tray, and the open side cut at an angle. The mini-ATX board was placed in the case and a mark made to determine where other parts could fit.

Work log 06-29-08
A panel was cut out of sheet steel and attached to the bottom of the case with a length of piano hinge. Aluminum angle provided reinforcement along the cut-off sides and provided a flat surface the panel can close against. The original side panel of the case was cut to add an extension to the bottom on the opposite side, and triangular sections of sheet steel added at the front and back. Aluminum angle was riveted to the sides to provide additional support. Screw holes were then drilled and tapped at the top edges of both panels.

The power supply was opened and mounted to the internal motherboard tray. Power wires were run to the rear of the case and wired to the power connection and switch. Push buttons were installed for the system board power and reset switches. One for power and two for reset.

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Power supply was installed in case, power connection and switch was extended to rear panel connectors.

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Side panels were attached with length of piano hinge. The original case panel was recycled and steel sheet was used for the other. Aluminum mesh covered the top.

Work log 07-05-08
A slot was made in one side panel for DVD drive to eject through. Openings for a Matrix Orbital MX620 LCD display and a big red button were made in the front panel.

After these minor modifications, I started construction of the base plate assembly. This was made from two sections of 1/2 inch MDF with a thick acrylic core. The clear core was made from two pieces of 0.20 inch acrylic glued together with rough-ground edges to scatter the light. 36 yellow LEDs were hot glued into the hole in the acrylic panel, and wired together in 12 groups of three.

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The MDF needed to be sealed to accept paint similar to plastic or metal, so a coating of epoxy was applied, thickened with talc and tinted with a little yellow tempera paint.

Work log 07-06-08
The guide was assembled from a small 7" LCD touchscreen and a tiny USB thumbpad that tested fine as a basic PC keyboard. I attached the keypad to the screen with a dab of superglue, and then trimmed a piece of PVC sheet to round out the lower section. A plastic floor protector was attached to hold one of the HHG badges. An on-off button (yellow) and momentary-contact button (red) were installed for the LED base and DVD tray. Gaps were filled with epoxy colored with aluminum powder.

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The Guide -- before and after touch-up with silver paint. A magnet from an old hard drive is hot glued into the disk to hold the badge in place without glue or damage.

Work log 07-13-08
Drive preparation: The switch and LED were removed from the optical drive and wires attached to connect to the button on the guide. Although two standard drives could be wedged inside the chassis, I elected to install a pair of 2.5 inch notebook drives. The drives were mounted slightly offset to keep the cable connector spacing close. Case prep: Sheets of thin plastic were attached with epoxy to the sides and front of the case.

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Wires were attached to the DVD-RW drive to later be connected to an LED and button assembled into the guide. Two small 40GB drives mounted with an air gap for improved cooling and offset to keep the cable connectors closer. Sheet plastic was attached with epoxy to the metal shell.

Work log 07-20-08
Kit bashing and other stuff: Using cutout pieces of white styrene sheet, printer parts, and assorted pieces of plastic stuff in one of my scrap boxes, I built up some patterns and symbolism from the Hitchhiker books and game. Additional parts were used from some Walthers Cornerstone Series kits (933-3114 - piping kit and 933-3126 - transformer kit). Douglas Adams fans know the ultimate answer is "42" so this was used for the first layer. Other variations such as patterns of four and two, and even a binary version appear on this side of the case.
 
Bottom fan: A small 80 mm fan was added on the bottom, positioned in the opening that was left in the MDF and acrylic base. Power still needed to be run for the lights and fan, but it was one more thing out of the way. The DVD drive was mounted in the base of the case and the light assembly reattached. The DVD tray was shimmed out to the level and angle of the side panel. Kit bashing continued on the Guide side of the case...

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Some various printer, toy, and other parts were used to add detail to the case panels. Sheet styrene was used to form the shapes and patterns.
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Work log 07-22-08
Well, that wasn't going going to work... While I was working on adding detail to the sides, I realized that the large cover on the optical drive would prevent opening that side panel of the case. After ripping off the cover plate, I added two pairs of magnets and a strip of plastic to keep the panel aligned. This allowed the drive cover to be removed to access that side of the case or to get to the tray-ejection hole in the drive.

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The drive cover was glued on until I realized I wouldn't be able to open that side panel with it there. Magnets and a strip of styrene allowed the cover to pop on and off as needed.

Work log 07-24-08
Prime Coat: I finished up the panel detailing during the week and masked out the openings and embedded hardware to prepare for painting. A grey primer went on first, followed by a single coat of yellow. Since I would be aging / weathering the case detail next, I deliberately used only a single coat of yellow, creating a slightly uneven, shaded appearance.

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Prime coating the shell and base panels.
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A single coat of yellow over the prime coat.
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The base panels were masked and a coat of gold was added to improve the reflectivity of the LEDs.

Green Guy
The design for the front of the case was to have the red button and Matrix display with the round, green, grinning character logo near the top. I considered a couple of different approaches to his creation, and decided to do one in clear acrylic with LED backlighting. Three layers of 0.20" acrylic were glued together. A print-out of the logo was taped to the back, and the shape rough-cut on the band saw. This was then rough-shaped using metal burrs, and then detail added and smoothed with fine burrs. A good rubbing with brass brushes resulted in a soft, frosted finish that diffused the LED lighting better. Paint over the rear gave the acrylic color when the LEDs are off, and some black and white paint accented the mouth and teeth.

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A matching hollow opening behind the mouth was carved in which to embed the LEDs. A 3mm red LED was embedded in the base of the tongue, and three wide-angle, green LEDs were positioned in the opening. Hot glue filled the opening, holding the LEDs in place and insulating the contacts. A Molex connector was attached to feed 12 volts to the three green LEDs (connected in series) and the 5 volts connects to the red LED. I toyed with the idea of connecting the red LED to the hard drive LED pins, and could still do this at a later time by wiring things separate.

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Work log 07-26-08
Don't Panic! (Just kidding...) There were only a few glitches during the final stages, most were stupid mistakes like forgetting to move the clear CMOS jumper. Nothing gets the blood pumping like a no-POST during the last week.

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The shell appearance was aged by dry brushing the yellow paint with several different "dirt" tones.

Wrap-up
Component installation wrapped up with wedging the motherboard into the case. Wow, was that a tight fit! Last of the case prep involveed wiring up all of the switches, LEDs, and feeding the cables that could not be run internally, such as the combined VGA / USB touch screen wires. A cable ran from the big red button to the COM port in the rear; a pair of cheap "sport" speakers was wedged in beside the fan underneath using some stick-on Velcro. These need upgrading, but work for sound tests. All exposed cables and some internal ones were concealed with yellow split-loom tubing, which is also dry-brushed on the external cables. Hard drives were mounted on the door, and all cables and power connections were made to the components. Installation of the operating system went well, and all utilities for the touch screen and Matrix panel were working fine.

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Hard drives were mounted on the side panel; exposed cables were covered in split-loom tubing to assist air flow. The USB thumbpad and Matrix Orbital display were connected to a USB connector left inside the case. The VGA cable and touchpad USB cable passed out an open in the rear panel. The exposed cable had to also be covered in more tubing.

Detail Views

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Work log 08-09-08
Upgrades and downgrades

I originally had XP Pro installed on the mod to get it up and running - but this is limited to 10 LAN connections and did not do anything for data redundancy, at least not while I was using the pair of PATA drives. I swapped out the two 40 GB PATA drives for a pair of Fujitsu 160 GB SATA drives. The system board had onboard VIA chipset SATA RAID support, so these were installed in a RAID 1 (mirrored) configuration using the hardware. I still had to load the SATA RAID driver for the OS to see it during setup, but this was not really an issue, since I "downgraded" to Windows 2000 Server to handle the additional CALs. I lost a few bells-and-whistle shell features, but nothing critical; I did run into an issue configuring the ATI Sapphire X1650 512MB video support. Apparently there is a known issue with the secondary display support under Windows 2000. So I also "downgraded" the video to a 256 MB ATI Radeon 9250. To make the mini speakers more useable, I added an internal amplifier removed from a pair of small desktop speakers. 7 volt power was supplied by the last Molex drive connector by connecting negative to the red and positive to the yellow for ~7 VDC output.

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SATA drives in a RAID 1 configuration. Speaker amplifier installed in a rear slot drives to two mini-speakers attached with Velcro to the bottom of the case.

Finishing Touches

Screen saver
The default screen saver for the internal display was set to the common Windows Slideshow screen saver. The directory it uses for the source images contains a selection of Rod Lord illustrations (from the original BBC video series), screen shots from the on-line BBC version of the HHG adventure game, and several images that I assembled based on text phrases from the game or related to the HHG 'universe.' Screen shots from the online game were enlarged to better fill the 800x600 screen size of the guide-display and combined with text commentary from the game.

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You can play the graphics-enhanced HHG game on the BBC Radio 4 website at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers/game_nolan.shtml

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The BBC version compared to the text-only WinFrotz version

Red Button
The red button uses a micro switch with a common, a normally-open, and a normally-closed connection. When a 25-pin COM port is enabled in a Visual Basic application, pin 20 (DTR) goes 'low' while pin 4 (RTS) stays 'high.' My program monitors pin 8 (Carrier Detect) and sends a random text message to the Matrix Orbital display, which also appears as a COM port in Device Manager. So, the button connects three wires to the system's (9-pin) COM port: Common goes to CD (pin 1), Normally-Open goes to DTR (pin 4), and Normally-Closed goes to RTS (pin 7).

Phrases to be displayed on the PLED display are limited to two lines of 20 characters each. I compiled a list of phrases from the text game along with a few from the books and made up a few that seemed relevant. The program is written such that phrases could be added to a text file, or the original list be rebuilt on demand from the application itself. If the file does not exist, it will be created the first time the application runs. A configuration file also is created, specifying the COM port assignment for the Matrix Orbital display and the red button port.

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1 Douglas Adams -The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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