High-Resolution Screens Everywhere

[As I’m writing this post, the news comes in that Skype HD videoconferencing will be built into TV sets starting this year. This is exactly what I’m talking about in this post as opening up all sorts of new possibilities.]

Let’s compare some prices for flat-panel displays (from Dell, cheapest available alternative chosen):

August 2004 January 2010
20 inch $719 $149

That means prices have dropped by about 33% a year. This trend may not continue all the way to 2020, but it’s clear that high-resolution screens will continue to be in abundant supply at ever-lower prices. There is a separate trend to ever-large living room TV sets, but in this post, I’m focusing on ever-cheaper screens at about that 20-in size.

We have about two dozen picture frames in our house, of the wood-and-cardboard variety, most of which show enlarged photographs that I shot at some time or other. Most of the pictures are years old, as I’m just too lazy and cheap to get newer pictures enlarged and hung up. More than half of those picture frames are about the size of that 20-inch screen. I just checked, a comparable-size picture frame that looks half-reasonable costs about $30, plus $15 for the picture to be printed at that format.

It appears to me that once 20-inch screens are available at less than $100 (and networking has been sorted out, a subject for a separate post), a gigantic new market opens up for display manufacturers: replace all the picture frames in all houses with digital versions.

That potential market is something like a dozen time larger than the market for PC monitors or even TV sets, so you can bet that screen manufacturers will go after it with force, and certainly before 2020.

Note what I have in mind here is a different thing than the cute little digital picture frame thingies that also want to be your MP3 player and only take SD Cards so you never know what they will show when you put one in. I’m talking about real displays with multi-megapixel resolution that you would not mind sitting in front of for a whole day. That can display fast-moving graphics. And, most of all, that are networked.

Imagine your house or apartment with all your pictures frames replaced with high-resolution monitors in the same place and with the same form factor. Initially, they show the exact same pictures. But they can and will change … some fast, some slow:

  • the picture at the breakfast table automatically shows you financial news at breakfast time, but that gorgeous shot from top of Half Dome the rest of the day
  • the picture frame over the fireplace in your family room has always-on videoconferencing (per Skype’s announcement today) with your kids’ grandparents
  • a picture frame in your office switches between the breaking news affecting your company and the snow forecast for skiing on the weekend
  • the picture frame in the hallway is pulling new pictures off the internet of the grand square in Marrakech that you would love to visit on an upcoming vacation
  • of course, so many picture frames show stills that you took, automatically taken from wherever your store your pictures, like the AppleTV does, or Roku (side note: the screen saver on our AppleTV has done probably more than anything else to convince me that you want your photographis to be around you at all times, not just when you open the album or run the software)
  • another picture frame slowly cycles through the pictures taking by your closest friends and family
  • the small picture frame on your way out to the garage shows you, in the morning, today’s schedule
  • the one in your bedroom shows new acquisitions from the local museum, a different one every week, with a focus on Fresh impressionists, say
  • if you are so inclined, the one in the kitchen one shows you today’s specials at Fry’s (or your local butcher).

Of course, all of this can be done technically today on your PC’s screen, and perhaps on your TV’s screen, and so this is a very easy prediction. But things change very fundamentally once it moves off your highly contested PC monitor real estate or main TV real estate, to a dozen or more locations around your house that are just made for showing pictures. (We can be sure of that, you hung pictures up in that very spot!) It totally changes your house. It totally changes your relationship to things outside of the house. It would be like you have new windows in your house, each of which tunnels a view to a totally different neighborhood, in real-time if you so like. Who needs the PC to interact with the world? The world is coming to your house.

This kind of environment will pose some rather interesting challenges for hardware and software architecture, as well as for usability, and I’ll post about those some other day. But it also opens up a lot of possibilities, technically and commercially.

P.S. I would not be surprised if Apple made the first baby steps towards those with the rumored Apple tablet. Tablet == portable networked picture frame with touch screen? Would not be a bad market entry product for this kind of vision…

Update 2010-01-06: LG today announced a screen only 7 mm thick. That’s better than my picture frames!

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