Cyberdecks For High-Tech Low-Lifes

Tales From The Dork Web #16

This issue of Tales From The Dork Web is about Cyberdecks, a term first coined by Gibson. If you've never seen one before, you're about to see Cyberpunk fiction brought to life. If you’ve ever thought about building one, this issue is for you.

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Italo-Disco legend Giorgio Moroder probably deserves his own Dork Web issue. As with Japanese City Pop you may have heard him without knowing of his existence. Moroder’s Chase is from his Midnight Express soundtrack album. If it sounds familiar, you might be thinking of Daft Punks sampling of it. Give it a play while you read on.

A Gift From Cyberpunk’s Great Bard

The term “Cyberdeck” was first coined in Gibson’s 1984 literary masterpiece, Neuromancer. He rewrote parts of Neuromancer several times after the release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Blade Runner was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Scott, Dick, Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, Goddard’s Alphaville and work by futurists such as Syd Mead and Moebius make the title of “father of Cyberpunk” hard to hang on Gibson alone. But he’s clearly a very important character in the development of Cyberpunk culture.

Just as Shakespeare brought in new words to describe new worlds, 1980s Gibson is Cyberpunk’s Great Bard. The Cyberdeck is just one of Gibson’s literary gifts. It’s the tool that lets Console Cowboys jack into the Matrix of Cyberspace and start hacking.

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts.

- Neuromancer, William Gibson

In his book, Neuromancer, a Cyberdeck was a book-sized device used to access the Matrix, an interconnected virtual world of gleaming towers, neon spires and avatars. A conflation of the real with the virtual, best imagined as Second Life meets VR meets a Star Trek holo-deck experience.

Neuromancer's protagonist Case uses dermatrodes connected to his Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7 deck to jack into Hosakas and hack the Matrix. In plain English, Case connects electrodes to his head, plugs them into a human-computer interface (the Ono-Sendai deck), which plugs into a computer (Hosaka) to enter the Matrix.

Occasional sprinkles aside, the book’s definition of a cyberdeck is left fairly open. A blurred line between Hosaka and Cyberdeck leaves the reader filling in gaps. The graphic novel paints a broader definition, some cyberdecks showing keyboards and monitors attached. Beyond Neuromancer, Cyberdecks include SGI Technologies "Elysla" from the Cyberpunk RPG shown above.

While most literary cyberdecks were built by megacorps, real world hackers are building their own Cyberdecks today. I want to show you some amazing work by people far more talented than I and where to find more inspiration maybe for your own build.

Modern Cyberdecks You’ll Love

Dave Este’s Reviiser is a fantastic looking Cyberdeck with overtones of the Commodore SX-64. Full instructions along with files to send off to your favourite 3D printing facility are available on his site.

Youtube user TRAINTRACS made a music production studio in a box. As well as the above video he has a build log and is getting real use from his deck.

In case you thought these builds were only for serious use, here’s an arcade machine build, something I never even considered till I saw Reddit user ClaytonGrove’s thread If the devices I’ve shown look great for Cyberpunk cosplay but hard to build, here are some considerations for your own Cyberdeck.

Most cyberdecks are built with Raspberry Pi or similar SBCs in mind. Pi setups tend to have longer battery life than Intel-based machines. Some people do use Intel NUCs as a base such as Mothernaturesson’s deck above.

Some Cyberdeck designs use wholly 3D printed cases. There are plenty of people using Pelican cases. Back7’s push-fit Raspberry Pi Recovery Kit inspires many Pelican 1330-based builds. Jay goes through assembly in his video above. The Pelican designs tend to be more common with preppers for recovery and offline use.

ChainsawMcD’s Sendai7 Cyberdeck build looks like a relatively cheap and easy to make build. I’m tempted to build something similar as I have most parts already.

In the EmComm prepping space, Julian OH8STN has a not-quite Cyberdeck rig he uses in Lapland. Julian camps on arctic sea ice and contacts people around the world on amateur radio.

Other people use retro computer cases for their Cyberdecks. I’d hope people don’t rip apart working classics for these. D1OD3’s Ono Sendai Cyberspace 7 C64 Deck looks great, although I prefer Glorious Hubris’ Atari 65XE-based interpretation, above.

If you want to build a Cyberdeck but are very unsure about putting one together, Elecrow’s CrowPi looks like a pre-built starting point. Initially I wasn’t going to mention it as I thought it didn’t have an input device. After Carmel\0’s recommendation I took another look and it has a touch screen. Honestly this looks like an interesting, if a little expensive electronics kit that could be tweaked when ready.

As well as the above, the excellent Cyberdeck subreddit is chock-full of inspiration, builds and pictures. I can’t recommend it enough.

My VR Cyberdeck

My Cyberdeck isn’t like the others you’ve seen so far. Initially I considered a Back7-style off-grid model, or a Virtuscope-type device. Rather than hacker cosplay I had specific goals in mind:

  • It had to support RF work from VLF to EHF.

  • I wanted enough power to process complex signals like HRIT.

  • I wanted to be able to watch movies and TV shows.

  • I needed to be able to jack into the matrix from anywhere, any time.

  • I also wanted to transmit digital modes on amateur bands.

  • It needed to run Windows 10 and Linux as there are tools for each

  • I needed to be able to run VMs now and again.

  • Gaming would be nice.

In keeping with the Neuromancer theme, I didn’t want a tiny screen with a giant keyboard. I wanted the experience you get from leaving behind a sky the colour of television tuned to a dead channel. I also wanted to make everything modular.

There’s a lot to break down in the photo above. My core VR cyberdeck consists of:

  1. An ANKER USB power unit

  2. Raphael 520 Stylus

  3. A OneMix 3 Pro* A5-sized Hosaka with 16Gb of Ram, 512Gb of SSD space, 2K Screen and an Intel Core i5 running Windows 10 Pro

  4. A Samsung Galaxy S8 phone

  5. A Samsung GearVR VR headset, controller and headphones

  6. Jellycomb Bluetooth Tri-fold Keyboard

  7. An Airspy R2, Airspy Spyverter, Airspy HF, and Funcube Pro Dongle+

I’ve not included my full radio rig or the antennae I use as I’ll cover that in another issue. This Cyberdeck was very much designed with using HF, VHF and UHF as well as the Internet. It’s still a work in progress but this is the basic deck. It’s modular enough that I can take what I need for a given task and leave the rest behind.

At the heart of the deck is the Samsung GearVR, S8 and two tools: VR Desktop and Samsung PhoneCast VR. On the S8 I run Termux via PhoneCast for a Linux terminal out of the box and most of the Linux tools I use. The S8 can also act as a wifi hotspot on the go for the Onemix. I was heavily inspired by Syed R. Ali’s VR Pentesting setup but I don’t run Nethunter. I have no idea how to record this for 2D viewing so I won’t. It looks a lot like this, but with a beach view:

I needed Windows 10 as I only have a giant Windows 10 PC at home in a small space. Some Radio software I use is either Windows only or not Pi friendly, some hardware, too. I set up a wifi hotspot on the S8, connect the OneMix 3 Pro and access it via VR Desktop. A Z8350 stick PC or Lattepanda SBC could work but I needed more power.

The Onemix 3 Pro is a tiny but mighty book-sized laptop that also works as a tablet. I say tablet but I mean tiny Surface Pro. With great power come great quirks. It can get hot under load if airflow's poor and the keyboard is a little small with weird key positioning. In VR I use a Jellycomb Tri-Fold bluetooth keyboard that works like a charm with both Termux on the S8 and the Onemix 3 Pro. I get about 1-2 hours of SDR work with live decoding on the go. If I’m not doing radio, it’s more like 3-4 hours and more with the Anker USB power bank. I use the OneMix to capture images from the ISS and NOAA weather satellites, as well as other signals of interest.

I also take the Onemix on the go when I’m not using the VR element, using my phone as a hotspot if needed. The micro-HDMI interface works well with monitors and TVs. I also have two 8bitdo SN30 Pro+ Bluetooth controllers for gaming. The Onemix could probably run modern games at lower settings, but the newest game I’ve played on it is Dreamcast Sega Bass fishing.

I've done reverse engineering in the full rig. I've listened to numbers stations and decoded Shortwave Radiograms. I’ve even edited Tales From The Dork Web on a giant virtual display. As a window on the Matrix, this Cyberdeck setup may be as close as it gets to Neuromancer.

Without the Onemix in the loop battery times are longer. Not having to run VR and a Wifi hotspot simultaneously helps the S8. I’ve also played with using VR Desktop and VNC to access my Amiga 4000 over VR and it kind of works but not as well as I’d like. SDR waterfalls look ok in VR. Android radio apps are built for small, not big screens.

In case you’re wondering, yes that’s my washing on the left at the back, yes that’s a BSides Lisbon T-Shirt and no that’s not a halo, it’s an AlexLoop HF Antenna connected to the OneMix via an Airspy HF.

Samsung are shutting down GearVR. When this happens GearVR kit will be stuck in time. A GearVR headset was a good value option at the start of COVID. I’d recommend looking elsewhere for a VR Cyberdeck build.

If this build sounds expensive, it is but with caveats. It was mostly built piecemeal recycling parts of different projects with the rest sourced on eBay and Banggood. The RF gear comes from research work or my Amateur Radio setup. The S8 is used for Android app security testing, but an S7 or older should be fine. As great as having a giant VR screen is, some applications are better than others. For regular desktop work it’s fine but VR headsets are still front-heavy. Movies and 360 degree YouTube videos are great as long as you’re ok watching them solo.

At peak COVID I watched videos of cities I’ve missed with people walking around. Seeing all these people around me was like visiting an aquarium of history. While it's very immersive its also very isolating. There's no way to share your environment. You can't watch The Twilight Zone with friends. There are apps and avatars, but you’re guests in in a corporate app space, never sharing your own. It was like pushing your nose up to the window but never being able to participate, like some ketamine-fuelled COVID fever dream from which you could only awake by disconnecting.

the cyberspace matrix was actually a drastic simplification of the human sensorium, at least in terms of presentation

- Neuromancer, William Gibson

As a cruel metaphor for modern life, I never felt more connected and simultaneously isolated. Jacked in, I’m intimately connected to the Matrix, but shut off almost entirely from the physical world and most of it’s sensations. For all the heavenly connection to the starry dynamo this deck offers, the Matrix is a very lonely place.

I use the VR setup less and less for practical stuff and more and more for big screen stuff. Even with radio kit the VR headset is the bulkiest part of the package. It’s also quickest to experience power issues. I find Gear VR flakes out in places, particularly the VR controller that occasionally goes awry. The disassociative sense of isolation and loss of physical sensation is mildly unsettling. The VR component is still great for watching old TV shows on the big screen but I don’t like doing that alone. For me, the price of near-full admission to the Matrix just isn’t worth what I leave behind.

As nice as it is to try out the Matrix moderately closely to as-described in Neuromancer, the most practical Cyberdecks are modern laptops and mobile phones. You don’t need dermatrodes to jack into the Matrix. Cyberpunk is now.

Things You May Have Missed

If all of this talk of Cyberdecks has you in the mood for some Neuromancer, the BBC did an excellent Radio play version a while back. If you’d like to play the PC version of Interplay’s Neuromancer game, you can do so in a browser or tag along with Heck Media’s playthrough below.

I’m scaling back my twitter presence. It’s not the people, it’s the platform. My existing account is now dedicated to Tales From The Dork Web (I have a separate private account to stop someone taking the old username) and posting things from my exocortex feed. I am still on Mastodon in case anyone wants to get in touch. I’ll write about my exocortex in a future issue, but if you want to know more about exocortices, the Doctor will see you now.

Hillel Wayne begs people to read papers before commenting on social media. Tiffany Matthé writes about Being OK With Not Being Extraordinary.

Justine has written an Actually Portable Executable, which reminds me of Ange Albertini’s polyglot binaries. Tidbits writes about the case of the Top Secret iPod.

I haven’t mentioned Oculus because they’re owned by Facebook. In Oculus news they’re insisting on Facebook accounts for Oculus users from 2023. In other privacy news it’s amazing just how much the Kindle collects on you. Thanks, Amazon.

Rosatom has released a previously classified Tsar Bomba nuke test video, which you can see above. The 50 Megaton device was the single most powerful device ever used in human history. It was designed to work with 100 Megatons but scientists dialled it back to 50. Detonated high above the arctic circle this terrifying device shattered windows as far away as Norway and Finland.

On the subject of truly terrible things, HP’s Power Shift, a “song” celebrating the HP Series 700 Workstations is possibly one of the worst corporate ditties I’ve heard:

I can only apologise for putting your ears through horror that could’ve made Lovecraft soil himself. I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself, William Gibson:

“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.”

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, I’d be grateful if you could share this with someone else who might like it. I'll be back in two weeks with more links you may have missed. If you’d like Tales From The Dork Web in your inbox, just fill in the form below.