All posts by Jack Schulze

Pixel Track

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.

Durrell was playing with mechanical pixels back when he was still at Luckybite, and when he joined Berg we decided to form a project around the domain and produce a prototype on the Berg platform.

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.


Connected devices

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.

Mechanical pixels

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…

Wooden Mirror

Danny Rozin’s beautiful Wooden Mirror is from 1999, and this film shows it in action.

“Wooden Mirror” (1999) by Daniel Rozin from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

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.

Manual pixels

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.

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2014 04 07 15-13-13

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…

2012 Yeosu EXPO HYUNDAI MOTOR GROUP _ Hyper-Matrix from media artist group: jonpasang on Vimeo.

Cloudwash – our prototype connected washing machine

Cloudwash is a prototype connected washing machine. We prototype products at Berg to help us understand how our platform should work, and to encourage better design in connected things. We’ve made a film about Cloudwash, watch it here:

There’s a lot of detail. The Cloudwash case study has the whole story.

For me, Cloudwash represents an approach to thinking about connected products which isn’t reflected in the current crop of connected things. Tom Igoe’s CES writeup is excellent and a fairly brutal read. As a summary of the territory, there isn’t much in there which inspires me.

At the moment, connected white goods are in their early stages, they take one of two approaches:

  • They take functionality normally available on the front of the appliance and duplicate it on a smartphone, like a fancy remote control
  • They embed an Android tablet in the appliance, and add tablet functionality like calendaring and music

Neither of these fulfils the promise of connected things.

Think about washing machines. Once their automation seriously changed domestic life, they were regarded as high value labour saving devices. That is where they have remained, albeit with changes in electronics manufacture and retail. When I look at the rows and rows of washing machines in department stores, they all seem a bit… the same. Manufacturers seek differentiation in minor deviations in impenetrable UI and tweaking of spin speeds.

Connectivity holds out promise for something really new, these machines can become something actually different. Cloudwash is an expression of our thoughts on how to make this stuff matter and some steps to something better.

I want to highlight three aspects of what we propose…

Washing machines exist in time

By sending an alert before the final rinse and spin cycle of the machine is finished, the machine rinse can be delayed if plans have changed and you won’t be home until later than expected. This seems like a really simple, handy win. This is an acknowledgement that the machine exists in time, and it can do more to fit in with how we live. In the coming wave of connected products, it seems likely that the few useful humble features will prove more effective in actual use than glistening touch screens and embedded speakers.

A connected device is software you can use because you are standing near it

You don’t need the app to make the machine work. The interface is carefully shaped across the app and physical UI to be sure that guests or temporary users can use Cloudwash without even owning a smartphone. This is a key principle for us: sign in for laptops and phones doesn’t go far enough in accommodating small groups, strangers, or shared use. Connected products will have to do better. I don’t want to have to sign in to my kettle to make tea and I don’t want private media appearing in shared objects.

In-App Purchase for devices

Cloudwash has two physical short cuts to online purchase, you can buy detergent and conditioner from buttons on the machine. When pressed they can simply trigger a reminder… or make a purchase direct from Amazon. That’s convenient for users, but more significant to retailers and detergent producers. Maybe there will be new business models: Amazon might supply a machine because the button orders the product of your choice over it’s Prime service. Or a Unilever or P&G might subsidise a machine, because it’s pre-sold with 500 washes worth of their detergent. The machine starts to mirror Nespresso machines, or the ways in which mobile operators subsidise handsets. Either way, the land grabs and deal-making around stuff like this will make for some profound weirdness.

What next?

We made Cloudwash because we want to start a conversation about the design of connected products and what networking something can mean. We were able to prototype and think through making because we’ve got a technology platform that makes it easy to do so.

We want to know what you think.

And we want to get our hands on the whole kitchen. The office. The front room and the rest. We want to help manufacturers invent the connected products of the future. If you want to talk about how we can help you with your products, get in touch.