Google’s giant modular displays are about more than just TV

Google is working on modular displays that “plug together like Legos” to create really big screens, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The development of these displays is headed by former MIT professor Mary-Lou Jepsen, who was instrumental in developing the screen for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) computer.

[company]Google[/company] isn’t the first to pursue the idea of combining combine smaller modular screens to bigger displays, and the approach has a number of advantages over simply producing bigger and bigger single screens. For one thing, modular displays could grow and adapt with a consumer’s living room. People could start with a few smaller tiles, and then add to them over time as their budget allows, or quickly double the screen in size as they move to a bigger house or apartment.

Making really big screens is also still really expensive. A 110-inch TV can set you back close to $30,000. That price will surely come down over time, but combining a bunch of smaller displays may be more economical, especially if you want to go even bigger.

TVs have long been ambient displays

I know what you’re thinking: Why would anyone want to have such a huge TV? The Wall Street Journal didn’t get a comment from Google for their story, so we don’t know the motivation behind their work on large modular displays — but I’d bet it’s about more than just watching your favorite TV shows and movies.

TVs have long been multi-purpose devices. Sure, we turn to them for movie nights and TV dramas, but we also turn them on to listen to the news while we get ready in the morning. We stream Pandora on them, effectively turning them into stereo systems with giant displays of album art. We play games on them. Sometimes, we just turn them on for the warm glow, to break the silence, or because we don’t like to stare at a giant black hole in our living room.

TV manufacturers and makers of connected devices have started to wake up to this reality by adding functionality beyond mere video playback to their devices. Interestingly, Google is already on the forefront of this development: Google’s Chromecast streaming stick displays a rotating gallery of landscape photography when not in use, turning TVs into something nice to look at.

Chromecast is Google’s first step towards ambient displays

At its Google I/O developer conference in June, the company revealed that it will enhance this type of functionality with a feature dubbed Backdrop, which will allow users to add their own photos as well as weather reports and other visual imagery to the Chromecast home screen. Backdrop, which is supposed to launch some time later this year, is essentially turning the TV into an ambient display.

It’s easy to imagine that one day, this could also be used to show or visualize information from connected devices in your home, so you can check the temperature of your Nest thermostat with one glance towards the ambient display on your living room wall. We’ll have Chromecast VP Mario Queiroz at our Structure Connect IoT conference in San Francisco this month, and I’ll make sure to quiz him about the potential for Chromecast to become the ambient display for the connected home.

The next step: get rid of the bezel

Of course, there are still some technical challenges to overcome before Google or one of its partners start shipping modular displays. Meshing video outputs across multiple screens isn’t trivial, and getting rid of the bezels altogether to actually make those screens work together for a viewer is challenging as well, especially if the individual displays are meant to be cheap as well.

Two years ago, NDS tried to envision the future of TV as a giant ambient display in the living room. The company had to combine six very expensive bezel-free flat screen TVs with a powerful PC with six video outputs, and the whole set-up was extremely expensive and complicated. Google’s research presumably is focused on simplifying this process, and making it affordable for consumers — which is pretty exciting.