This Super-Clean Smart Screen Puts a Newspaper on Your Wall

Sometimes no user interface is the best user interface

Paper on Thanksgiving Day, 2019. Content: © 2019 The New York Times Company

There’s something special about the layout of a print-edition newspaper. A news website has infinite vertical scrolling space, but a printed front page is fixed to the same size every day. This constraint creates a very particular aesthetic and — if done well — a sense of typographic balance.

I wanted to preserve this analog feeling and infuse it with the possibilities of smart home technology. That’s why I made Paper, a radically simple prototype that does exactly one thing: show today’s front page on a large e-paper display.

Sometimes no user interface is the best user interface. This project, even more so than Accent previously, was created in the tradition of calm technology. Paper easily blends into the background, because its screen doesn’t emit any light and the content changes quietly when no one is looking. The display is wall-mounted at eye height, and the nightly front-page update happens automatically, so the only user interaction is simply standing there and looking at it.

I’ve been using different versions of this prototype for about two and a half years now, and I usually read it while getting ready in the morning. It definitely and literally passes the toothbrush test for me.

Sometimes no user interface is the best user interface.

This project is not affiliated with the New York Times. While the concept isn’t tied to any particular publication, I picked the New York Times because it has an iconic print front page with an attractive headline typeface and is published in machine-readable high quality.

Some design details of Paper. Content: © 2019 The New York Times Company

The latest prototype of Paper, shown in these pictures, combines a few ideas that I found to be important: For the print layout to shine, I used a display about as large as the unfolded actual paper. I also wanted it to lie as flat as possible against the wall and blend into the interior of my apartment. I didn’t want to add a large bezel, which would make it look like just another picture frame.

The solution I eventually landed on left the display panel bare, exposing electrical features like the copper flex cables and artifacts around the active pixels. It reminded me of registration marks still visible on cheaper newspaper prints. The display panel floats just offset from a concrete frame, echoing the features of a building, like an exposed concrete ceiling and pillars. The gap allows enough room for the electronics while maintaining a thin appearance. The grayscale display was mainly a practicality—I would use color if I could—but it matched this aesthetic very well.

A mood board for the latest prototype. (Images courtesy of the author)

E Ink’s 31.2-inch monochrome display fit the bill. The 31.2-inch color display gives you colors, but not at any satisfying resolution or contrast ratio. I have higher hopes for Advanced Color ePaper (ACeP), but it doesn’t come in large sizes yet.

The software is very basic in principle: Each day, in the earliest morning hours, New York time, Paper downloads the latest front-page PDF, converts it to the correct image format, and sends it to the display. The V5 system board has Wi-Fi and runs an embedded Linux, so I ended up using a combination of Bash, Python, and cross-compiled C to make things work. E Ink’s NDA prevents me from sharing the source code, but you get the idea.

To create the frame, I first built a mold from acrylic. It was held together by screws, so I could easily open it once the concrete dried. I used Portland cement and mixed in some titanium dioxide to achieve a lighter shade of gray. I also embedded a wire mesh inside to prevent the frame from breaking apart.

The system board, Wi-Fi antenna, and power adapter fit into the middle of the frame and are attached to the display through a supporting acrylic sheet. A Google Home Max (famously named after me) had to donate its beautifully designed power cord.

Mix concrete. Pour mold. Let dry. Cut wires. Put it all together.

The latest Paper prototype takes the radically simple user interface about as far as you can. There are no buttons or even settings. While reading the front page is enough to get some idea of what’s going on in the world, most articles do continue on other pages. Currently, the easiest way to continue reading is to simply open the New York Times app or website, which usually has the same articles at the top. For future work, I could imagine a more interactive interface or a more seamless transition to other devices.

For more smart home prototypes with unconventional displays and minimal user interfaces, check out these stories:

Inevitable technology. Now Robotics & Machine Learning at (Google) X.

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