The term information radiator was coined by Alistair Cockburn was back in 2000. His book Crystal Clear (2004) gives the following definition:
An Information radiator is a display posted in a place where people can see it as they work or walk by. It shows readers information they care about without having to ask anyone a question. This means more communication with fewer interruptions.
Radiators are commonplace in the IT establishments I’ve worked at. Having one or more large, always-on displays conveying information to development teams is extremely useful. Build statuses, test coverage percentages, usage analytics—these are just some examples of stuff that can be surfaced to everyone’s benefit.
Radiators are clearly useful to devs, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful elsewhere. My building has a radiator in the lobby that shows bus schedules, trading hours for nearby shops, and maintenance notices.
I’ve been thinking about setting up a personal information radiator in my flat. As yet, I haven’t. Why? Well, let’s think about what makes a good radiator. A good information radiator (Alistair’s take):
- Is large and easily visible to the casual, interested observer
- Is understood at a glance
- Changes periodically, so that it is worth visiting
- Is easily kept up to date
Hardware-wise, just about any old LCD/LED display will get thee job done, provided it’s big enough. But if we think about what we really need, and specifically what we don’t need, I’m convinced that LCD/LED displays aren’t the optimal solution:
- Information radiators are typically never shut off. Modern LCD displays are relatively efficient, but they still draw a non-negligable amount of power.
- The, err, information displayed on an information radiator doesn’t need to be refreshed that often. Periodically, yes, but at sub-second intervals? Not really. I’m not playing Crysis on the thing.
- Being able to display millions of colours is overkill. Content needs to be able to stand out, but we don’t need millions of colours to achieve that.
- Almost all displays suffer from burn-in when static content is displayed for long time. Depending on the situation, information radiators might display content that is static for hours or even days. Every single radiator I’ve seen has permanent burn-in, be it in the form of a company’s logo, the outline of a clock, or something similar.
Using large e-ink displays as information radiators would be the perfect solution. E-ink displays don’t draw power when they are not refreshing, saving electricity. Text looks looks sublime with non-existent aliasing. Photos and graphics look great. And in cases where a grayscale monitor won’t suffice, an e-ink display with a handful of colours is enough to cover practically every need.
What I want is a 20″-24″, thin, plug & play e-ink display to use as an information radiator at home. Hell, give it a nice frame and I could use it to display artwork as well. As far as I can tell, there are no technical or financial reasons why displays like this couldn’t be offered to consumers. If there are, let me know—the solution makes too much sense otherwise.