I spent some time this past weekend getting our information screen (or whatever you want to call it) up and running in the kitchen again. It is kind of a piecemeal concept which developed from all the products swirling around the market (digital picture frames, weather stations, mall kiosks, etc.)
Digital picture frames were all the rage a few years ago, Basically, you dump photos on a memory card and a small chip scrolls through them like a slideshow on a computer. This is where the gears started turning. I wondered why it just had to be pictures.
Driving on Interstate 65 on family roadtrips, I remembered seeing weather maps detailing the radar images along the highways whenever we stopped at rest areas Let’s throw that in. “What about calendars?” Let’s setup a web calendar for our family stuff. How about situations where we need to call someone? Let’s add 911 and everyone’s cell phones so we can keep in touch no matter whether our cell phones are working or not.
I began with simple tests. I grabbed an old LCD monitor in the garage and threw a Raspberry Pi Model B on the back with double-sided tape. I decided it would be much more advanced if I made a fullscreen web browser handle the content. Iceweasel and a tab switching plugin would serve as the proof of concept. Browsers can load everything and it will be simple enough to keep things going. This ended up being unmanageable further down the road, but for now everything worked.
I remember sitting in La Finca (The Fajitas Diabla will change your life!) with my wife and seeing this tower with a sideways TV on it, displaying adds for local business. Kind of cool, but it would be like leaving a yellow pages in the area where people wait for a table. Everyone is on their phones anyway. Just felt a little misplaced.
The local mall near home has these almost “Jumbotron” looking screens near the ceilings which supposedly get you in a shopping mood along with “advertising pillars” as I like to call them, essentially a 16:9 screen standing sideways on the columns that used to have the mall directory on them.
This stuff was starting to pop in the market. It was a natural progression. I was reading websites about concepts like the content changing if your phone got near one of these kiosks, giving you a chance to call the business by sending contact info, and all other kinds of exploitive uses. They could even access the cloud! I started calling them “Telescreens”, a reference to Orwell’s 1984.
Back to my project. There was a marketing concept called hyper-local developing in the technology industry around 2010. I began to adopt and adapt this to my own thinking about the concept. “Can the needs of a computer user become so hyper-local they can no longer be fulfilled by a mass-market product?” “What if this is just for me?” It’s kind of an evil genius mentality, I know. Then you go back and watch Ironman. Tony Stark didn’t create J.A.R.V.I.S. for everyone. It was a tool he designed solely to serve his purposes.
I went through a complete redesign on the tools I was using. The browser made it simple for others, not me. I hammered together some Python scripts to handle updates. I threw out the concept of everything being HTML and designed some scripts to turn everything into a picture. Eye of Gnome, a slideshow program that does only what I need it to do replaced Iceweasel.
It died due to a bad memory card a few months ago. My wife approached me a asked why the screen wasn’t giving her the weather report and the calendar wasn’t up to date. It’s amazing how useful things are when you don’t even realize it.
In summary, I have simplified the process to the point where it just works and I will continue that way until I get this thing functioning at the core. It will more than likely remain an internal family project for years to come, but it will remain useful without the intention of world domination.