Screens live a double life. They serve us dense information in bright colors, only to transform back into black mirrors. We have gotten used to it, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
As more and more connected devices arrive in our homes, it’s a good time to remember the principles of Calm Technology, first formulated at Xerox PARC in 1995. They talk about how technology should respect our attention and remain in the background most of the time, how relevant information should be presented calmly and make use of the periphery.
In my previous projects, I used two-way mirrors and minimal user interfaces to create smart displays that blend in with the space around them. This time, I turned to e-paper, which achieves similar effects with a matte and non-emissive surface while operating on much less power.
I’m calling it Accent. It’s a small picture frame with a black, white, and red e-paper display. Accent is battery-powered and connects to Wifi, but only changes a few times each day.
An automatic schedule determines which type of content to show at what times. The latest prototype features a map of the commute on weekday mornings, which is replaced by a calendar on weekends. During any other time, the frame shows custom artwork.
Accent uses very little energy. The e-paper display only consumes power when it changes, which happens infrequently. The computer is a small microcontroller that remains in deep sleep most of the time, waking up briefly to download the latest image and show it.
Using the power-efficient e-paper, however, comes at a price. I only have three colors and the nostalgia-inducing resolution of 640×384 pixels to work with. There’s not even any grayscale, just full black, white, and red. Photos usually don’t look so great on this screen, and there’s definitely a retro feel to it.
I decided to embrace these constraints with some inspiration by the poster above my desk. If you don’t…