Some computer hardware manufacturers try very hard to make their products attractive. Sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes they’re not, but they’re at least trying. Zyxel Communications Corp, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as concerned with aesthetic. At least not when they designed the EMG3425-Q10A, a wireless router I recently started leasing from my new fiber Internet provider. The router’s fast—fast enough to use instead of my own aging hardware, but it’s certainly not pretty. Even worse, an unfortunate set of circumstances meant that this monolithic device would be sitting in a prominent location in my living room. It’s hardly a conversation piece!
After a few months of glancing over at its plain black facade, a bank of ten blue LEDs racing to see which could flicker faster, I began to see it less as a monolith and more as a canvas. Those little blue icons, all lined up in two rows top-left, started to remind me of an energy meter in a video game. A specific energy meter in a specific video game. That’s when inspiration struck: I would turn that ugly blank monolith in the corner of my living room into a(n ugly) piece of geek art!
About a year ago I flexed my Metroid fanbits by designing a modified version of Tourian to engrave onto the case for a new PC I’d built a couple of weeks prior. This time I’d have less map rejiggering to do, though I’d have to spend a little more time on prototyping because of the odd shape of the canvas. The plan was to combine a few images from the opening to Super Metroid (largely presented in black and white, fitting as the scene in question is originally from a GameBoy game) with some UI from within the game to create a finished composition that would take the blue LED bank into account.
The scene in question, where Samus is escaping planet SR-388 and runs into the very last Metroid just as it hatches, was chosen because the LaserLights material I was planning on using would only work in greyscale. I also added the opening scrawl that was originally accompanied by Dan Owsen’s infamously nebbish read.
The last metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace…
During the design phase, most of the time was spent adjusting the composition to account for just how big the energy meter turned out to be. It was physically locked both in size and location thanks to the LEDs. I still really wanted to use the UI from Super Metroid with the same aspect ratio between the boxes, the “energy” text, and the “auto” icon, not to mention the mini-map across the way. There was no way I’d be able to fit the missiles, super missiles and the other bits you’d normally see on a Super Metroid screenshot. This also meant I’d have less space for the cave ceiling below—which was ultimately removed. I cut a prototype out of chipboard first, and my initial measurements paid off: the LED cut-outs were in almost exactly the right place. I just needed to adjust their size and the space in-between a little bit. I cut a score line where the matte router body meets the glossy LED pane, and planned to keep this division apparent in the art, but the size of the energy meter thwarted that plan, too.
After the chipboard prototypes, I cut one test out of a thin strip of the sticker material to be absolutely certain the LED cut-outs would line up on the finished piece. I also took the opportunity to do some test engravings, making sure I had the right combination of contrast and laser power to get the intended halftones in the medium. This usually eats up a fair amount of extra time and material, but this time my settings were only a wee bit too powerful.
I didn’t need to adjust the contrast, but I still had plenty of small changes to the composition left to make, especially when deciding on where to put Dan Owsen’s text. I still have this nagging feeling that I should have left it out for a cleaner final piece… but I just couldn’t! The final design is then inverted, making it resemble a negative. That’s because the laser will engrave wherever there’s black, and our medium is a black surface that engraves to a silvery foil beneath.
With the shiny sticker cut out and cleaned off, the only step left was application. I knew this was going to be an issue because I was too lazy to arrange it so that I could temporarily turn off our Internet, take the router upstairs, and apply the sticker on a flat surface with plenty of lighting. Instead, I was going to apply the sticker right there on the table, with the router as upright as its lean-back stand would allow.
One of the techniques I use for applying stickers is to only fold back a thin strip of the backing at first. This let me slide the complete sticker around a bit while lining it up on the surface—juuust right—before pressing down on the exposed adhesive. That step went marvelously. Then it’s just a matter of peeling off the remaining backing and carefully laying down the rest of the sticker, starting from the initial affixed portion on down. You can still end up with air bubbles trapped under the sticker if you’re not careful, but at least you don’t need to worry about the sticker staying aligned to the surface.
Of course, kneeling on the floor trying to apply this sticker to a surface at an awkward angle was the worst idea, and I was not at all successful in carefully applying from top to bottom. I was able to fix a few of the bubbles by pulling up small sections and reapplying, but this abuse was starting to stretch out the material, making it even harder to apply flat. That’s actually hard to do with this material, which holds up against stretching far more successfully than a typical vinyl decal.
So I’ve got a few hard-to-see bubbles. So what? I love the shiny new piece of art on the table there. It’s still not really aesthetically pleasing, but at least it tickles my Metroid fanbits.