Pixel Track is a new kind of connected display. We prototype products continuously — sometimes to explore the Internet of Things, making sure our platform is up to the task, and often to help businesses find opportunities in connected products. We produced Pixel Track in collaboration with the Future Cities Catapult as part of a research project about data and public signage. We made a film about Pixel Track, and you can watch it here.
There’s a full write up in the case study.
Pixel Track uses a system of mechanical pixels to make a display which reflects a particular kind of emerging networked use. While behaviour is driven by the network, the main display surface is a passive manufactured object, the pixels themselves containing no electrical components at all. The connectivity, electronics and the mechanics are all contained in a small train which moves up and down the main display surface changing pixels as it moves. This means the display has some unusual properties.
The display updates more slowly than most electronic displays, it doesn’t refresh the whole surface 25 times a second. It is dramatically cheaper since the main display surface can be manufactured with straightforward injection moulding techniques — all the complexity is in the train. There are also far fewer electrical drivers and circuits than a comparable LED dotmatrix.
The pixels are bi-stable, which means, like e-ink, it requires no power to maintain a message on its surface. Pixel Track only needs power when the message needs to change. This means, in situations where the message might only need to change say once an hour, that it is believable that the system runs on a battery for long periods.
Because the surface of the display is manufactured, it isn’t constrained materially by being a glass screen like and LCD display, or like LEDs. It’s aesthetically very flexible.
There’s something I’m struck by in the object having watched it emerge. It’s how light the componentry is. There’s no Windows PC driving it locally and no local server required, just a meagre power supply to drive it. The smarts are on the network, where they should be. I like the idea of bolting these things to the wall wherever there is Wi-Fi.
It’s an object of spareness. It’s so light infrastructurally that the low power and cheap cost of production feel like natural reflections of that. Pixel Track is a product of the network. I expect to see more and more simple artefacts like this as web-connected devices become more common.
Pixel Track could show tweets, the free/busy status of meeting rooms tracked in Google Calendar, or which train platform to head to based on identifying your phone using Bluetooth LE. The service layer is fluid, and the product is easy to integrate.
What next? This is an early prototype, a one-off. We’re continuing to move the prototype forward, and are looking for partners to help scale Pixel Track to prototype installations and manufacture. If you’re interested, or would like to explore what connectivity means for your products, get in touch.
There are beautiful and fantastic precedents for mechanical pixels. Gibson and Sterling describe a mechanical screen called a ‘kinotrope‘ in their novel The Difference Engine. A non-exhaustive list of other beautiful examples follows…
Danny Rozin’s beautiful Wooden Mirror is from 1999, and this film shows it in action.
The 4 mechanical mirrors are made of various materials but share the same behaviour and interaction; any person standing in front of one of these pieces is instantly reflected on its surface. The mechanical mirrors all have video cameras, motors and computers on board and produce a soothing sound as the viewer interacts with them.
Timo recently discovered this large wall of mechanical pixels in Copenhagen. I don’t think there’s any mechanism in place to change it, it looks like people are invited to flip the pixels themselves to make messages and images.
Flip Dots and Split-Flaps
I’ve always hugely enjoyed the skittish, panicky refreshes of old split-flap displays in railways stations. There’s something hypnotic about the way the letters dissolve in patches into each other.
There’s also some beautifully engineered technology from the manufacturer Alfa-Zeta called Flip Dot. Each pixel is a magnetically controlled, bi-stable dot. This installation for TNT by New York designers Breakfast NY looks extraordinary: Those dots are updating, physically flipping between states up to thirty times a second.
Also, this is nuts…