Hacking an e-Reader to Show My Tea Menu With JSX

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I wanted to have a tea menu to show guests and for my own reference. Turns out e-Readers use so little power and can render HTML! I'll share how to generate an e-book with all your drinks with React, JSX, and Deno, as well as rendering a custom cover page with SVG. Wow your friends by turning an old device into a smart home tea menu, and learn how to write your next book with React.

Tiger Oakes
Tiger Oakes
7 min
12 Dec, 2023

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Video Summary and Transcription

React can be used to create custom menus for e-readers, and the process involves creating an image and e-book with React and loading them onto the e-reader. Writing an EPUB e-book for e-readers involves converting an SVG file into a PNG image and writing the e-book in EPUB format using HTML, CSS, and images. EPUB generators like Pandoc and Dino simplify the process of generating EPUBs from markdown and running JavaScript on the desktop, respectively.

Available in Español

1. Using React to Create Custom E-reader Menus

Short description:

React from websites is cool and all, but how about we use it for ebooks? I'm here to show you how to hack an e-reader to make it show whatever you want, such as a tea menu. I'll show you how you can do this yourself. Creating an image and e-book with React, and then loading them on to the e-reader.

React from websites is cool and all, but how about we use it for ebooks? I'm here to show you how to hack an e-reader to make it show whatever you want, such as a tea menu. My name is Tiger Oaks. I'm a software engineer working at Microsoft. I previously worked on three different web browsers. You can find me at Mountainwoods on all the socials, as in not a certain golfer.

Besides for my cool name, if there's one thing to note about me, it's that I like tea quite a lot. I've bought tea from different shops around the world, and I've gotten lots of tea as gifts from friends. I just went to a tea festival last month. Basically, I now have about 30 different tea flavors in my apartment. But when I have guests over, I just have too many teas to list. By the time I get about halfway through, their eyes have already glazed over. The solution? Putting my collection onto a menu. Now, I can just hand guess a list that they can peruse as they like. Rather than reprinting a piece of paper whenever my collection changes, I can just update an e-reader. I'll show you how you can do this yourself.

Creating an image and e-book with React, and then loading them on to the e-reader. Let's start by breaking down how to make an image to later display. First, we start with a background to make the menu look a little nicer. I took inspiration from a Dungeons and Dragons themed tea shop and created a custom background on a paper Then I moved on to creating the foreground text using SVG. We frequently use SVG to create vector art on our websites, and it resembles HTML and lets us use React and CSS. For a single tea flavor in the menu, I created text elements for the tea name and description, as well as a line to separate them. I then wrapped it in an SVG group, like a div. I wrote a small program in TypeScript to read the database with my tea, and then write SVG files using React. This SVG snippet has been turned into a React component, so you can translate a data object into a rendered image using text elements and SVG positioning. Then I can move each of these groups, using transform translate, like a CSS transformation, or using position absolute. By setting different X and Y values, I can reuse the same text and line elements but move them around the image. With a top section nicely laid out, I can then wrap all these elements in a group and repeat the same process, writing the component with a different translation for the bottom section. SVG is very flexible, so you can make your own customizations. You could switch out the font to see the sets, or display different items and show menus for other things in your house. It's also easy to swap the background image around to anything you want.

2. Writing an EPUB e-book for e-readers

Short description:

For the e-reader, convert the SVG file into a PNG image. Write your own e-book using the menu image as the cover. E-books are written in EPUB format, a standardized format used by all e-readers except Kindles. EPUBs are zip files with a renamed extension. Writing an e-book is similar to writing a website, using HTML, CSS, and images for each chapter. EPUB uses XHTML, with self-closing tags and lowercase names. Include CSS and use tags like H1, P, and image. EPUBs need a content.OPF file that acts as a site map, including metadata, manifest, spying, and guide.

For the e-reader, I convert the SVG file into a PNG image, which you can do using free tools like Inkscape and Squoosh. Some e-readers let you upload a custom locked screen image, I can connect it to my computer, then drag this image onto its hard drive in a screensaver folder.

Other e-readers do not have this feature. However, most of them will show the cover of whatever book you're reading when locked. We can abuse this by writing our own e-book using the menu image as the cover of the book.

Now when I say e-book, you probably think of a digital version of a big book like this with lots of choppers. But our e-book is going to be more like a pamphlet. If you have at least one page, you can write an e-book.

E-books are written in a format called EPUB. This is a standardized format used by all e-readers except Kindles but Amazon lets you easily convert from EPUB into Kindle's custom format. EPUBs are actually just zip files that have their extension renamed.

Just like websites, e-books need to be responsive since you can have different e-reader screen sizes. As a result, writing an e-book is very similar to writing a website. You use familiar HTML, CSS, and images to create each chapter of the book. In a website, each HTML file is a page on your site, but in an e-book, each HTML file is a chapter of your book.

EPUB uses a stricter version of HTML called XHTML. You need to make sure that your self-closing tags have a slash and that your tag names are all lowercase. This might sound familiar because these are the exact same restrictions that JSX has, but other than that, everything is the same. You can include CSS and use the same tags like H1 and P and image.

EPUBs also need a file called content.OPF, which acts like a site map. This file includes data, like the title of the book, every file in the zip folder, the book chapters in order, and bookmarks to some important pages. Here's an example. The content file is written in XML. Let's hide the unimportant parts. You can see it broken down into a few tags, similar to how an HTML file is broken down into head and body tags. Metadata includes the title of the book and the cover image. Manifest includes all the files in the book. Some files have been assigned an id that can be referenced in upper sections. Spying indicates the order of the chapters. And guide points to important pages, like the table of contents.

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