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Turning a MacBook into a touchscreen with $1 of hardware (2018) (anishathalye.com)
524 points by hidden-spyder 38 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments

One of the authors of this project here—

We actually iterated a bit on the design since then and removed the dependencies on door hinges and paper plates. The revised^3 design involves scotch tape and a paperclip instead.


That's awesome! I can tell that the millions of dollars spent on product development is paying off

I think two mirrors at an angle would provide an opportunity to get much better precision in estimating the location on the screen being touched. Wondering if you have tried that.

The comments on that 2 year old video seem to suggest it doesn't work properly when setting it up?

The number of simple, yet very cool ideas on HN just baffles me, no wonder HN is an addiction!

Selling an add-on/accessory that clips onto any macbook or even any laptop with similar screen properties as the macbook pro used will be a nice little business!

It seems it already exists!


> MirrorMeThis is a specially-designed laptop mirror. Instead of your students seeing your face, they see the keyboard area where you can place anything you want to share and talk about.

So it's designed for the classroom, but I don't see why it couldn't work here.

That's neat... you could scan things with this. But I realize now your phone can do it too.

Wow, this is pretty cool, thanks for sharing!

Since it is this time of the year again, here is an idea: try bouncing the view of the screen off of a metallized glass Christmas bauble for a makeshift curved mirror.

Edit: an iPhone fails to focus on the reflections in a Christmas bauble, maybe the warped reflection throws something off in the auto-focus method.

Edit 2: it works with a larger bauble, supposedly because the view is not as warped as in a small one that has a smaller radius of curvature.

I remember 2008 Prius had mirror to reflect Speedometer. Basically Speedometer is on the floor of the dashboard and a vertical mirror reflects the numbers. I assumed they made it this way to save space.

This technique is often used to reduce eyestrain and refocusing by extending the optical distance to the display, making it.more similar in terms of vergence angle and focus distance to the view outside. I'm not sure if this was the motivation in the Prius but given the fairly advanced state of VFD displays at the time I'd guess so, there would have been options to avoid the complexity. It's further curious that the Prius used to use half mirrors to combine multiple display units for that dashboard, I'm less sure of the reason for that other than that perhaps the assembly was expensive and they saved money by doing it only for critical instruments like the speedometer.

Some GM cars had this back in the 80's


Optical touchscreens! Underutilized technology, IMO. I had a very small part to play in the development of the FlatFrog display system which uses the same approach but inside the glass, using the fact that touching the screen alters the internal reflection properties. https://www.flatfrog.com/inglass

I was one of the contract IC designers involved in the custom chip which is deployed all round the display to illuminate/measure. A little single-purpose DSP with an ARM on the side.

We had an optics lab at the Faculty of Engineering, Lund University about the idea behind the FlatFrog display system back in 2014 (I think) and I remember thinking it was genius.

I really wish Apple would let me have a touchscreen MacBook at least as an upgrade option.

I don't care at all about a touchscreen macOS, I just want to be able to run the iOS Simulator on the laptop when I'm travelling and have touch like I would on an actual phone.

Yeah, I'm really surprised they haven't. I'm not a huge touchscreen on laptop user but they've become so ubiquitous on non-apple laptops that I regularly poke the screen on my MacBook.

It's not like a touchscreen is great ergonomics on a conventional laptop but there are certain situations and applications where it's just convenient to have the option. And it's low cost these days, so it makes perfect sense to me for manufacturers to throw them in so you have the choice of a really easy, fast interaction when you're flipping pages or pausing videos.

What I really miss are pen digitizers which had been the basic minimum on convertible tablets for a long time in the '90s, but then everyone got rid of them. Only now they're slowly creeping back but mostly only on very high end tablets, although a few manufacturers like Lenovo have put them back on convertible laptops.

Couldn't you use screen mirroring on iPad for solving that(Haven't used that personally)

I could, but then I might as well just use the phone.

It's the portability of being able to do it directly on the laptop that I'm wanting.

But, a phone is portable, already?

It is, but having to hook up the phone to a stand and connect it to my MacBook and lay all that out in a confined space / coffee shop / etc is not.

Not when it's the laptop and the phone.

They're not going to ramp up a production-line option and do the QA on an ill-advised touchscreen computer for your edge case.

And people who prefer computers should be very, very happy about that; because touchscreens on computers are stupid.

Why so hostile? Lots of people like having touchscreens on their laptops, myself included. What's wrong with it if people want it?

Upon further reflection this is a wonderful idea!

A mirror on the webcam reflecting the screen light back, and AI/ML watching the screen's reflection of the finger to see when it touches, can clearly see a touch event.

This idea was also re-invented by Carmen Castrejón, as a teaching aid during Zoom classes.


She uses a CD as a mirror to point at a pen and paper, with maths homework.

Likewise, we can use scrap CDs on the corners of the office, to help people see motion and not collide (bus contention) when turning sharp 90º angles walking out of the washrooms or kitchenette or lab, back into the grid squares of open-plan desks.

I have the 14" MBP and my wife the Surface Laptop 4, and I am envious of her touchscreen. As a free-thinker who sketches ideas on paper and draws arrows between thoughts, doing that on my laptop with a stylus would be _wonderful_.

Buying an iPad alongisde my MBP to do this is more than I want to spend. Come on Apple, touchscreen MBPs please.

Out of curiosity: What do you need the MBP for? I.e. what couldn't you do with an iPad + keyboard?

A lot, the iPad is not a computer period. It's great hardware (that has the same CPU as the MBP) with extremely limiting software, low hanging examples of limitation would be the how iPads fail to utilise any monitor properly, inability to natively open up a terminal instance and its weak filesystem. You would think given its power it would be a perfect platform to develop native applications but no, in order to get any work done you would need to remote into an actual computer which defeats the point.

The experience is quite nice though. A lot of people already develop on remote machines, and switching to a “dumb client” with an amazing screen, huge processing power, touch and writing abilities, plus crazy battery life is not a bad deal.

That doesn't make it any more of a computer. It's not like you're going to take it out to the park and do some debugging in Valgrind with it.

As if app development or debugging code are the only things people do with a computer…

There's a weird and persistent-over-years blindness by a really high percentage of HN posters to how amazing iPads and even iPhones are as tools for creative work of practically every kind that isn't programming or extremely mouse-centric. Meanwhile they're way more useful than a laptop would be for damn near every creative task I partake in that's not programming. The combination of form factor and sensor suite is pretty amazing, and very useful. If I were only allowed one computing device in my house, no question I'd choose an iPad of some sort. Probably the big Pro. It'd hurt more not to also have a phone (for the tiny size & portability) than it would to not also have a laptop. I can always SSH somewhere else to run my software. I can't access the extremely useful capabilities of an i-device without having it present with me.

I own an iPad, I'm not unfamiliar with it's capabilities. It's just not that compelling of a package, hardware and software wise. If I'm going to write code, I could either punish myself and reach for the iPad, or I could go grab a laptop and get work done. I'm not denying the fact that you can SSH into a server with it and use special bindings for your Magic Keyboard but... why would you? Professionals want robust tools, plain and simple. The iPad is a wading pool for a lot of activities; you can get a little photo editing done, you can do some video editing in a pinch, you can futz around in Garageband with pre-sampled instruments and a handful of sampled synthesizers, but once again: why? They're neat timewasters, party tricks in an 11" form factor. It's not held back by a lack of power, it's held back by Apple's refusal to give it proper tooling. If there was a proper DAW on the iPad, I might be agreeing with you. If it didn't tone-down the file management to somehow be worse than a Chromebook, there might be some kind of professional utility there. But they don't, and that's why HN posters simply don't care about your iPad. It's a Disney-fied whirlwind tour through creative professions and bare-minimum MVPs. Oh, and there's TikTok and YouTube apps for when you inevitably give up and resign yourself to consuming entertainment. I only reach for mine when I need a third screen for YouTube videos, and even then I often just balk at the screen ghosting and toss it back in the drawer.

I’m an artist and musician and my iPad Pro is pretty much useless because it can’t run any real software programs. It can only run what are essentially mobile apps. It’s pretty pathetic considering it’s the price of a new laptop.

Have you tried apps like Procreate / Linea Sketch? They are really, really good and you can't match the touch + stylus experience on a desktop computer. These are "real software" by all definitions.

I imagine you want to run a windowed system on it ("real apps"), and are just not used to touch UIs. It's just a different paradigm.

Xcode, developing iOS apps and similar. TBH it's the only reason I own a Mac of any kind, that and the hardware lasts well.

So you own your specific type of computer for the hardware and the software...

Is there any other reason to own a particular computer?

> So you own your specific type of computer for the hardware and the software... > Is there any other reason to own a particular computer?

Fashion? Because you like using it? Because it fits in your budget?

So... yes.

Doesn't everyone buy a specific computer for the hardware and software? I don't know anyone who goes to a store and just picks a random computer, they either decide between Windows and MacOS, and then pick a computer based on the specs.

Reminded me of Johnny Lee and his Wiimote projects.


Does anyone know what the latency of these Wiimote setups is? If it's better than an actual touch-screen that might be worth implementing for that reason alone

Slightly OT: I get it on a Surface Pro/Go, but just not on a laptop. I even disabled the touchscreen of both my Dell XPS 15 as I never used it in over 6 years and with the recently reduced bezel even touch it by error when reaching for function keys.

Honest question: What do you use a touchscreen on a classic laptop (like MBP, XPS, Surface Laptop) for?

My wife has a Dell touch screen that's running Ubuntu. Every time we're looking at memes or family photos together on some social platform, she reaches out to the screen and pinch-zooms and it just works. The utility is obvious. I just think, I can't believe this is possible.

But also, I'm a home-row person and I feel naturally annoyed by the additional touch interface at the same time, just out of ergonomic idealism. For example, there's no home row for touch screens that I'm aware of, which means the resting position is effectively going to mandate either contortion and body leverage, or some amount of strain. I feel like we'll all laugh about how bad touch screens were, someday. But until then, her laptop also does something cool (and not exactly strain-inducing, really) that mine doesn't.

I do the exact same pinch-zoom gesture with my touchpad, though. Without leaving oily fingerprints all over my screen.

Not sure how oily your fingerprints are or what the screen is like, but I don't think we have that problem here. Heck, I have to rub my nose for quite a while just to keep the trackball going :-) I do dislike the feeling of gestures on most trackpads though.

I live in a warm and humid region. Perhaps you live somewhere more cold or arid.

At any rate, I'm amazed that one would find pinch-zoom awkward on a trackpad, yet find it perfectly natural to lift their hands off the keyboard area altogether and reach up to paw at the screen.

I don't so much care if Apple ever chose to equip MacBooks with touchscreens, so long as:

1. The quality and brilliance of the screen did not diminish in any way.

2. Cost did not rise.

3. Developers did not start writing features that presume universal touchscreen use, thereby effectively forcing everyone to paw at their screens.


1. I cannot imagine it NOT being used as an excuse to raise prices. Which would suck, as this is a "feature" that I very much do not want in a MacBook.

2. The fact that you DON'T really see desktop developers writing features for touchscreens suggests that perhaps Apple was correct, and this is just a gimmick.

> At any rate, I'm amazed that one would find pinch-zoom awkward on a trackpad, yet find it perfectly natural to lift their hands off the keyboard area altogether and reach up to paw at the screen.

To be clear, that's two different people, my wife and I. We do file jointly though :-)

There is precisely one scenario in which I find a touchscreen useful: If I'm opening a long series of links, I'll hold control and rapidly touch them each in sequence. This is much, much faster than using a mouse, let alone a touchpad.

This however is so useful, it's almost worth it on its own.

That's only a problem if your laptop manufacturer chooses to ship a glossy display, god forbid.

When my daughters came home with Chromebooks provided by the school last year, I too was blown away when they had touch screen. Instant jealousy.

I like the idea of the nipple in the home row, but it always feels like too much work. Too much pressure etc. So I have resorted to the touchpad on the Thinkpad. But you could do pinch gestures on that, and it isn't too far away.

Perhaps joycon style keys on F and J?

I tend to prefer alt-scrollwheel myself. Not sure if that's available in Ubuntu though.

Joycon keys are an interesting idea. I had an idea for a keyboard-mashing library that would map all keys into groups of several directional zones e.g. up down right left, and you could mash generally in the zone of your choice to steer a flight sim or paint or modify paint dynamics. Anyway.

Damn I'm missing a scroll wheel.

Found myself an old school Kensington trackball. With no scroll wheel. Which is a pain. But I quite like the ball. Shame it's not in the middle of the keyboard.

I don’t get it either. That my MacBook and ThinkPad don’t have touch screens is a selling point for me… no possibility of fumble-clicking things accidentally, and a good trackpad (and/or trackpoint) do everything a touchscreen does exactly as well as a touchscreen does. Personally touchscreens on laptops feel like compensation for bad/mediocre trackpads.

Also in the case of the ThinkPad, lack of touch support lets it have a matte screen which I definitely wouldn’t trade away for the average glossy laptop screen — Apple’s glossy screens have decent antiglare but those from most other manufacturers are almost mirrors.

I don't use my touchscreen heavily, but I do use it regularly for scrolling.

If I was into virtual desktops, I'd probably use it to swipe between them.

When using non-touchscreen laptops, my wife and I do often have the urge to touch the screens, so there is definitely some muscle memory built up from using touchscreen laptops.

I used to use a Chromebook running Ubuntu that had a built-in touchscreen, and it was nice. A lot of websites build with touch in mind now, so having access to that kind of interaction ends up being a pleasant add-on.

Instead of thinking of it as a screen upgrade, think of it as a trackpad upgrade. The touchscreen on this Chromebook wasn't even that good, and I still really appreciate it having it. I'm sure one on a MacBook pro would be a really nice experience.

When I get frustrated with a laptop's glitchy touchpad, it's satisfying to be able to violently poke the screen and have it actually respond the way I want.

The last touchscreen laptop I had had a glitchy touchscreen as well, so all you can really do is swear at Alexa (just kidding, I've never tried to use it.) Of course, if you put Linux on it then work in a terminal, all your problems are solved.

I go out of my way to avoid buying touchscreen laptops. If my mbp 2015 was a touchscreen I wouldn't have bought it.

The reason would be more interesting than just stating a fact.

The screens get dirty, I find the build quality to be in general worse (perhaps with the exception of the microsoft offering) than the alternative, they are too light, half of them do stupid things like switch between tablet and laptop and bend in ways they shouldn't. I feel touch is more suited to a tablet.


I also find that the keyboards are often neglected in 'touch screen laptops'

Screens only get dirty on glossy displays, for the most part (unless you have outrageously dirty fingers), build quality is pretty arbitrary since, much like normal laptops, good ones and bad ones exist. I don't know what you mean by "too light", but I can at least agree with the fact that Windows 10's "tablet mode" is a load of crap. It's a much better experience with recent Linux machines, where their GUI is optimized for mouse, trackpad and touchscreen navigation. No need to switch modes, just reach out and do whatever you want. Keyboards though? You might not be looking hard enough. I've got two touchscreen Thinkpads that feel equally fantastic to type on as they do to swipe on. I feel like you're grasping at straws a little bit, here.

I can't confirm any of this. I've had 0 keyboard issues or screen issues.

Asus, windows 7 and 10.

Laptop is 7 years old.

My biggest surprise is how often I use the touch screen. I'm typically a mouse and keyboard guy, but when I'm on an airplane it's sooo easy to tap.

Didn't know Apple doesn't offer touch screens, kind of shocked given how Essential they are to me.

Huh. I went out of my way to buy a 2in1 touchscreen laptop despite not using the 2in1 feature precisely because I know the manufacturer has designed the hinges and casing to be stronger for that use case, so that it doesn’t break easily.

Avoid random Chinese Celeron based 2in1 and you should be fine.

Steve Jobs said the iPad is the product he’s most proud of and it seems like Apple shares that sentiment internally. I use both the Mac and iPad and iPadOS is Apple’s best software.

The downside is that it’s not as feature packed because they’re literally reinventing a new computer UI from the ground up. The iPad really is a paradigm shift. MacOS has been around for 40 years. IPadOS only 10. It takes time.

I have an iPad (my only Apple device right now) and I'm overall happy with it, but:

* I can't send a picture from Android to iPad OS when I don't have internet: iPad can't receive images over Bluetooth.

* I can't send videos from my Windows10 to the iPad with a simple USB cable without installing iTunes or some other bloated software that I don't (or shouldn't) need. I am not sure how to easily send +100GBs of video otherwise (suggestions appreciated).

It is so sad that this hostile lack of features are an intended thing for such an expensive and "advanced" device, and that my only hope is that EU will threaten with some anti-competitive fine for Apple to do the sane things that would benefit consumers.

> iPad can't receive images over Bluetooth

Christ. We were sharing images over Bluetooth between mobile phones when I was a teenager in about 2005.

We were sharing pictures using infrared links before that. It sucks, 90% of the time it doesn’t work properly and if it works it’s extremely slow.

That’s why people share their pictures on WhatsApp, Snapchat or whatever.

Apple isn’t going to implement a service if the experience sucks, they’ll implement an alternative that doesn’t suck. Sometimes it’s limited to their ecosystem and sometimes it isn’t. If you don’t like it, use one of the alternatives.

> I can't send a picture from Android to iPad OS when I don't have internet: iPad can't receive images over Bluetooth.

There’s an app for that ;)

> I can't send videos from my Windows10 to the iPad with a simple USB cable without installing iTunes or some other bloated software

There’s simple apps for that too ;)

In the same amount of time it took you type up this comment you could’ve found solutions using your favorite search engine.

Here’s a “free” search term to try:

‘copying videos to ipad without itunes’

> There’s an app for that ;)

My specific case was that I didn't have access to internet at that moment, but I hoped that I could transfer with Bluetooth just like I did many years ago with simpler devices.

> In the same amount of time it took you type up this comment you could’ve found solutions using your favorite search engine.

>Here’s a “free” search term to try:

>‘copying videos to ipad without itunes’

I remember trying and not finding anything meaningful. I will for sure try again if you're saying there are ways, but just telling me to search online instead of giving some solution brings me back to the same starting point that I was the first time I tried.

Whatever happened to "it just works"? Now it's "here's some search terms to try, do your own research. it's your fault for not anticipating the shortcomings of iOS and macOS!"

The EU will not ‘threaten with some anti-competitive fine’ because Apple doesn’t allow you to send 100 gigabytes of videos to your device without installing the tool they give you for free to allow you to do that.

If you want that kind of experience, get an Android tablet. Or a Surface tablet. You can, because there is competition.

You're right.

However, similar to how EU started requiring all smartphones to have the same connector, I would be nice if all smartphones / tables / "generic media devices" were required to support simple file transfer via cable with major OS, without requiring additional vendor specific software.

It's possible that I'm unaware of technical aspects of storage systems today that would make this impossible, but I'd be happy to learn more about this.

I also was completely unaware that iPad didn't allow for such simple file transfers when I bought it, nor the Bluetooth limitation. I don't know up to which point is the user expected to verify basic features that have been widely available for decades before buying a product because the vendor decided not to add it.

I presume you are also unaware that although ‘the EU started requiring all smartphones to have the same connector’ iPhones still charge using a lightning cable?

iPadOS is frustratingly close to perfect for me, but I rarely use it because of a few trade-offs that part of me really appreciates.

I could develop software on it, but Apple won't let me run arbitrary code on it, even in a sandbox. I get why, and I really appreciate that for everything else I would use it for, but even getting a Linux container running similar to ChromeOS would be something.

It's a surprisingly pleasant experience with the magic keyboard.

> I get why

Apart from purely political/commercial reasons, I don't see why.

Sandbox and App Store are mutually exclusive reasons for this situation.

Option A: you have good security architecture, so running arbitrary code is safe because all the data is well-isolated and programs cannot mess with each other's data. There is no need to have humans reviewing apps, apart from optional parental controls that people may opt into.

Option B: you don't have good security, so you need to micro-manage app publication and have ability to revoke them, in case an exploit is discovered.

Also, for a development machine, when you run arbitrary 3rd party open source dependencies, build scripts etc, you really want iPad-like security model where each project lives in its own sandbox. But the Unix permission system is an unusable mess, so even if you put your project in a container, your build script can still push to git repo and do other fun stuff outside build folder.

It is impossible to build a sandbox that protects all user interests if there are no checks and controls.

A sandbox can not protect against things like user tracking or crypto mining and can give no guarantees about what an app is going to do with the private data you are entrusting to it.

Why would it not rely on both ? Why would any security measure not have an additional security measure ? In my opinion there is no such thing as a “good security measure”. There are only security measures that haven’t been broken yet.

We should make a 3d model (STL file) that anyone can print! If you share the exact dimensions maybe I could give it a try… Awesome project!!

It might actually be useful to show the finger. Think of all the teachers out there trying to direct a student's attention to a particular point on the screen. Maybe you could do a split view. Or put a servo on the mirror and allow a mode where the finger or a stylus is visible.

Lol the Mac screen is so reflective they actually use it like a mirror :D

Some 15 years ago I rigged up a CRT touch screen using the parallax from two cheap webcameras. It worked, just barely. It was a fun project, if perhaps not the most viable.

I'll never understand this trend of turning all laptops into touchscreens with dumbed down UI/UX to accommodate your fat fingers...

I do like it for quickly drawing diagrams though. I can be on a call with colleagues, open Pinta and sketch out what I'm thinking with my finger.

Wait until you see laptops with touchscreens without UI for fingers, like all Windows laptops with touchscreens!

doesn't "tablet mode" still work in the current releases of Windows 10/11? I do remember that not all applications supported it (either cleanly or at all).

Tablet mode kind of solves the issue for the Start Menu and the window manager.

But you’re still using applications with tiny touch targets. Plus all the parts of Windows that don’t even work with the on screen keyboard. Try typing a password in the privilege elevation prompt for a laugh.

People with Windows tablets use them with a separate keyboard and mouse in the cover, and then they use the touch screen to draw on pdfs.

Still a prototype, yet could be a viable and affordable product with a little work.

"Turn your MacBook into a Touchscreen with our $150 accessory available on Amazon"

Too bad this probably doesn’t work for matte (non-glare) displays.

Awesome stuff like this is why I visit Hacker News.


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