The one pixel display

by Dries De Roeck on July 14, 2018

This post is about one of those ideas that my mind keeps coming back to from time to time. Never took the time to try to make this real, but needed to jot it down – perhaps just for my own future reference.

The basic idea

This one pixel display is something super simple. As its name suggests, it’s a square pixel which can either be on or off. It does have an RGB led inside, so it can display different colours. Functionality wise, it has a lot in common with the thingm blink(1) device – which has been around for quite a while.The one pixel display can display notifications, but it focusses on information close to people. For instance, it can tap in to publicly available (open) data streams to show things like train delays, traffic congestion and weather forecast info. Also, a one pixel display can be used to monitor sensor data generated by other devices in the home environment. For example, doorbell pushes, open/closed state of doors and windows, garbage bins, presence of people, sound level, etc …

The design

The one pixel display is designed in such a way that its aesthetic is on par with a higher end media art piece. This means it is created to be placed in highly visible spaces in the house, such as a living room wall, fridge door or radiator front. It can be placed by itself, but also in clusters with other one pixel displays.

A one pixel display can only be linked to one data stream. Pixel displays are not intended to be linked together, although they could be technically designed to form a mesh network. Ideally, a one pixel display communicates data over a mobile network using a simcard and and an nb-iot connection. Inspired by the Particle mesh devices, there could be one pixel which acts as an uplink for any connected one pixel displays.


Key to the one pixel display is the way in which people assign meaning to the device. Typically, the owner or people close to a one pixel display will be aware of what it signifies or indicates. For example, when the pixel on the fridge door turns blue it means we’ll be getting rain today. When the pixel next to it turns green, it means the rubbish bins are full and need to be taken out. A pixel on the living room wall could move through the colour spectrum based on the outdoor temperature.

Assigning meaning in this way is inspired by the type of interaction a product like the GoodNight lamp offers. There are no set rules for interaction or engagement nor is there are preset function or ‘best’ way to use the product. A very nice consequence of this is that a visitor or a person not familiar with the ruleset has no idea what is going on or what is being communicated. Ideally a visitor to the house would think the once pixed displays are a digital artpiece or interior design accessory.

What really triggers my brain when thinking about the one pixel display is exactly the shifting levels of meaning it offers. Playing with the boundary between knowledge or meaning in ‘close social circles’ versus ‘distant relations’ seems very interesting. It becomes a way of encyrpting messages or data socially without the involvement of a technological solution.


There are two main issues (or hurdles) that currently keep me from taking this project further. Firstly, energy provisioning seems very cumbersome. Having mesh network connected illuminating cubes will require some sort of ‘always on’ component which is most likely more battery hungry than expected. Allowing the pixel display to be charged could be one solution, but then again … does the product even make sense to charge? (I came to fully understand why blink(1) chose to go USB-power only)

Secondly, the whole system would need some kind of authoring environment or setup phase. Probably this would be a web based backend system of sorts, where all owned cubes could be managed. Again, this feels very complex to create compared to the potential benefit the envisioned product might deliver. Another option is to preload the one pixel displays with a certain functionality, but that would be totally against the idea of people assigning their own meaning to the device.

So, what’s the plan?

There is no plan, I sometime think this could be a nice crowdfunding project – but to be honest I’m very hesitant about having to provide a centralised digital service over time. Maybe a service like glitch could be interesting here, as I could see people hosting their own little server somewhere … then again, it makes the whole thing a lot more complex for the lay user of this. In case I ever get the time and opportunity to spend a couple of days coding side by side with a more experienced backend person – we could probably come up with a nice prototype.

BUT – In case anyone is triggered, feel free to reach out and explore this little idea further.

Related products

  • Domestic widgets: to some extend, this product does the same using motion instead of light. Using a phyiscal chance in the enviornment is even less attention seeking, which could imply that people not aware of it won’t even notice a thing.
  • GoodNightLamp: I’ve been a long time goodnightlamp fanboy, but in relation to the one pixel display, goodnightlamp already covers a fair bit the ‘meaning’ stuff I mentioned. There is no convention of how the product should be used, a lot of it is based on socially constructed ‘rules’. Turning a lamp on or off does not necessarily need to match 1:1 to a status of being present or away.
  • Siftables / Sifteo: Cubes with a display, they have been around for a while and offer the same possiblity. Seems like the company folded in 2014, which kind of highlights the inevitable ‘temporality’ of such devices.
  • Minut/Point: a home security system using audio as the prime sensor – it’s an interesting device because in a home environment is looks rather ambiguous. As a home owner you know the function of the device, but visitors probably have no clue.
  • Cube world: A set of cubes that can be connected together to form a digital ‘ecosystem’ of stick people living together. These are designed to communicate to each other, and become more interactive the more cubes are connected to each other.
  • Blink(1): Mentioned before, it’s interesting that they choose USB as a default – doing so the device overcomes some technological hurdles. At the same time it becomes ‘tied’ to a computer and is much harder to imagine in an actual home environment.
  • Busylight: Although I’m not entirely sure what I think about this product, functionality wise, it is an excellent example of an existing one pixel display. It’s a little odd that the product was created as a reaction to a social change (the open plan office).

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