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Tuesday, May 15th, 2012 by Patrick

Recently Possible Pt2 – Smart Public Screens

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Last post I talked about designing with the recently possible. This is a mode of creating I love. Constantly watching what technology and ingenuity are making possible and filtering those new potentials through design constraints to build interesting new stuff.

That’s all a little on the abstract side though. So I’m going to try to lay out some concrete examples. Here’s just one sketch looking at Internet connected screens installed in public spaces.

What’s the tech?

Screens + tiny computers that can drive them are getting cheaper and rapidly cheaper. According to DisplaySearch, who track such things, the average price of a 32-inch LCD screen went from $725 in 2008 to below $300 and falling at the end of 2011. The cost of computing power that can drive those screens has fallen even more sharply. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Raspberry Pi, a credit card-sized computer that can connect to the ‘net and drive a hi def screen which costs just $35.

What are we doing with this tech?

So far the people catching onto the opportunity seem to be advertising types. Not even the smart advertising types judging by their efforts. The formula seems to be to take some same-old-same-old ads and give them front and centre priority on the screen. Then to justify their public location (your office elevator or a subway platform say) they paste on an after thought’s worth of news and public service information. I’m pretty sure we can do better.

What could we do?

Taking advantage of the dynamism of Internet based media and the specific geographic locations of these types of screens I think we could do a lot. For example…

Smart advertising

Advertising obviously has a place in how we use public screens. Advertising dollars paying for useful content is a common model for good reasons. Perhaps the ads these screens can be a little more human and take advantage of the fact they’re in a known location and context.

Maybe this looks something like the ingenious Baker Tweet, a prototype bakery broadcast system. Baker Tweet provides a super-simple way for a London bakery to tweet when different specialties are fresh out of the oven. Combine that with the local, public screens to broadcast snippets of useful information for your customers rather than just repeating the same static ad.

Compassionate screens

A few years ago my Father-in-Law spent several months in hospital. Many things about the stay were frustrating and the the art work on the walls of his room rated low down. However it did rate. He was a man of taste and an art school grad so the fact that his room was decorated with a few mediocre art posters was yet another indignity.

Maybe we could do that better. How about a digital screen on the wall that displays art and images tuned to the patient’s tastes. Offer an online interface the patient or their relatives could pick out a rotating collection of art that actually mean something positive and contribute to a sense of dignity and healing rather than just inoffensively filling a spot on the wall.

We can take this a step further by offering a system that lets (authorised) friends and relatives send photos and get well messages directly to the screen. Making the jump from a reproduction, Hallmark-grade pastel drawing of flowers to a photo of the patient’s grand-kids at hockey practice yesterday and another of their own wedding day. Perhaps with a tasteful plaque indicating that this was brought to you by GE.

Urban dashboard

Until all of us have a smartphone and a data plan there’s a niche to fill in providing factual, timely and super-local information. Maybe this could be the edge for a local coffee shop, providing a public screen that informs its customers when the next bus is coming by, which nearby bike share locations have bikes available and whether it’s going to rain in the next twenty minutes. (Hat tip to Toronto’s Grinder coffee shop who have had a version of this for a couple of years).

The Future

Obviously this is only a surface scan of what may be coming when we combine cheap public screens with smart content. My point is that lots of things beyond the rather unimaginative status quo are possible. Lets do some of that smarter, more human stuff rather than just throwing up more of the same eh?