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Intelligent Machines

Screen Test

Forget photo prints and frames. Flat-screen displays are a much better way to hang pictures on your walls.

Within the next few years, active screens are going to be mounted on the walls of most households. We’ll use them for entertainment, we’ll use them for information, but most of all, we’ll use them to communicate without words.

Many households will have those 30-inch to 60-inch plasma displays – screens that are dropping in price and turning up on the walls of more and more family rooms. While today’s screens are great for watching television and DVDs, I expect that in the not-too-distant future, many will be showing family photos and even video feeds from romantic locations when they are not otherwise occupied. Why look at a blank screen when you can gaze at a lifetime’s worth of snapshots of your children or shots of your upcoming vacation destination in Bali?

I envision that, in the kitchen or near the front door, the favored screens will be 20-inch, high-resolution liquid-crystal displays with built-in Wi-Fi adaptors. These information-rich appliances could display things like weather predictions and traffic reports when you are heading out in the morning, then tastefully switch to great works of art to greet your eyes when you arrive home.

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Granted, there is no application that I foresee for these wall-mounted screens that wouldn’t work on a desktop computer today. But the advantage of intelligent screens is that they would always be ready and stocked with the information you need. The simplicity of just glancing at the wall will win out over the complexity of desktop computing.

I have had a primitive version of such a “smart screen” on my wall for four years now: it’s one of those moving-message LED signs, which I rigged to display news clippings from CNN and the Weather Channel. The reports are incredibly useful: I catch news out of the corner of my eye that I simply would have missed if I had been forced to fiddle with a Web browser.

A more sophisticated smart screen is Visart’s Album TV, which I had hanging on my kitchen wall this past fall. This piece of techno wizardry, which looks like an oversized picture frame, lets you watch TV as well as play DVDs and CDs on its built-in drive. But what’s really different about the Album TV is that it also has a reader that will show photographs or movies stored in any of the popular flash memory formats. It’s surprisingly more enjoyable to view your digital camera’s photos in an attractive frame on the wall than on a desktop screen. Visart sells screens in a variety of sizes; the 18-inch version I tested goes for $995.

The key advantages of an integrated machine are sleekness and simplicity. The Album TV has only a power cord and a conventional remote control, making it simple to play a DVD or watch a slide show. Unfortunately, the screen also suffers from the pitfall of having been designed by a consumer electronics firm: it lacks the sort of flexibility that computer users expect. For example, it will display a slide show of photos that are stored on a Compact Flash memory card, but it won’t display those same images if you burn them onto a CD or DVD and pop it in the drive. Data is data, you might think – but Visart’s designers didn’t see it that way. One annoyance: you can set the slide show to change images every one, three, five, or 10 seconds – but not every five minutes, which is more what you’d want for a wall-mounted picture frame.

That’s why I am hoping that the “smart screen” market will be driven by computer vendors instead. An interesting step in this direction is Apple Computer’s decision to offer a VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) mounting bracket for the back of its sleek new G5 iMac computers. This is a big deal: it’s very difficult to securely mount traditional desktop LCD panels on a wall, because most of them have attached stands that get in the way.

Because wall-mounted PCs and Macs run standard operating systems, it will be much easier for developers to create a wide range of “post-PC” applications for them. Cables are ugly, so get your electrician to install a recessed outlet – the same kind of outlet that would be installed for an electric clock – and use a wireless 802.11 network to enable the wall-mounted computer to get data from your home server or the Internet.

Interestingly, it was Microsoft’s Bill Gates who pioneered the idea of using wall-hanging computer screens as ever changing electronic frames. Back in 1994, Gates announced that electronic “windows” would be built into his house overlooking Lake Washington near Seattle. Gates also founded Corbis to purchase the electronic rights to millions of photographs. Corbis bought the Bettmann Archive in 1995 and the Sygma news photo agency in 1999, as well as electronic rights to the works of many museums – assuring in the process that the walls inside the Gates estate would never be at a loss for pretty electronic pictures.

These days, of course, anybody with a cheap digital camera has plenty of electronic images and few places to display them. Hence one of the many advantages of hanging an electronic picture frame on your wall.

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