DIY Bluetooth Keyboard Breakout for $10

You could get an excellent Bluetooth keyboard controller from Adafruit called Bluefruit EZ-Key which allowed super easy creation of projects that sent keyboard presses (for example a gamepad) just by connecting some switches to the pins. However, the EZ-Key cost $20 and is now discontinued. And in any case, Bluetooth-capable devboards are now available from AliExpress for a few dollars, so $20 today feels on the steep side. “Could it be done cheaper?” I wondered…

I have honestly about a dozen cheap wireless devboards lying around, many based on ESP8266 which only have Wi-Fi, but some also with ESP32 which includes Bluetooth. I spent some time trying to configure a Chinese ZS-040 serial Bluetooth module to function as a keyboard, but the AT command set was a very small subset of what the similar HC-05 / HC-06 modules have. After an evening of trying, I decided to give up on that. There are instructions how to flash HC-05 modules with RN-42 firmware to get Bluetooth HID capability, but it will require quite a few steps.

I also took a look at esp32_mouse_keyboard project, but for some reason or another, abandoned that avenue. Don’t recall if there were obstacles or the project was still incomplete a year ago, might also be that the ESP32 only had BT LE which technically didn’t support HID (Human Interface Device). Throw me a comment if you have that working!

Meanwhile, another idea dawned to me:

A Cheap Bluetooth Keyboard Must Contain A Bluetooth Module

Enter the wonders of AliExpress: While you cannot source an easy BT keyboard module from US under $20, you can get a full mini Bluetooth keyboard for $9.50 (at time of writing) including postage! This package ought to contain:

  • A fully compliant Bluetooth board that pairs with iOS, Android and PC devices
  • Full functioning keyboard and case
  • Presumably, a battery and a way to charge it

Sounds a too good deal to be true? Well, let’s find out! The keyboard has a solid metal backplate that is easily screwed open with micro cross head screwdriver. Once inside, it reveals a very professional layout with a flat ribbon cable (or “FCC cable”) coming from the mechanical part into the controller module, And a small (most likely LiPo) battery.

Taking the tape off and turning the board around reveals a bit spacious, but very professional looking PCB with clear markings. There are easily usable on/off switch and connect button on the PCB, a connector for the keyboard switches, and obviously some kind of microcontroller wired to the connector, as well as another smaller chip that is most likely a voltage regulator or charging chip.

I Googled around to find out if the “YC1026” MCU would have a datasheet to help me along the way, but unfortunately I only got Chinese web pages (most likely the manufacturer) without any documentation. Time to dig out my trusty Picotech 2000 scope and do some old-fashioned reverse engineering!
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$8 Bluetooth automation button for Raspberry Pi Zero W

This project was born as a sidetrack of another one (I’m planning on building a $10 DIY Bluetooth page turning pedal for my piano and iPad sheet music app, similar to PageFlip Butterfly). I was looking if AliExpress would have bluetooth pedals, which they don’t — it seems Chinese vendors are REALLY good at copying products but there is little new product innovation combining something as simple as a bluetooth keyboard sending one or two keys with a pedal (two items that they do have)! But while searching, I found this inexpensive gadget (in case the product is removed, you might just search for “bluetooth remote” at AliExpress.com):

So what is it? It’s an $8 disc with multimedia buttons that pairs with your smartphone and you can use it for example in car to control your music. But maybe it would pair with my Raspberry Pi W which has integrated bluetooth as well? Well it costs about nothing to find out!

Fast forward about two weeks and it arrived. I did not try to use it for its intended purpose, but instead went straight to pair it with my Raspberry Pi Zero W. Turns out the pairing process was quite painless, you can follow for example LifeHacker’s tutorial for pairing quite easily. And it goes a little something like this (your MAC address might vary, just look for output after “scan on”):

# bluetoothctl
power on
agent on
scan on
connect FF:FF:00:45:8D:FF
trust FF:FF:00:45:8D:FF

Continue reading $8 Bluetooth automation button for Raspberry Pi Zero W