Flip Dot Displays Appear with Modernized Drivers

Admit it, you’ve always wanted to have your own flip-dot display to play with. Along with split-flap displays, flip-dots have an addictive look and sound that hearkens back half a century but still feels like modern technology. They use a magnetic coil to actuate each pixel — physical discs painted contrasting colors on either side. It means that you really only need electricity when changing the pixel, and that each pixel makes a satisfyingly unobtrusive click when flipped. The only problem with the displays is that they’re notoriously difficult to get your hands on.

flipdotBreakfast, a Brooklyn-based hardware firm known for creative marketing installations, unveiled their Flip-Disc Display System this morning. Used displays have come up on the usual sites from time to time, but often without a controller. Traditional flip-dot manufacturers haven’t sought out the individual hacker or hackerspace, and a click-to-buy option has been difficult if not impossible to find.

Breakfast’s offering modernizes the driver used to manage all of those electro-mechanical pixels. Whether this will make the displays more accessible is a question that still needs to be answered.

Breakfast has designed their own driver circuit for each panel of 28×28 pixels which includes a Cortex-M microcontroller. The easily daisy-chainable panels (using cat5 + power) pump up the maximum data propagation across a display by at least two orders of magnitude over traditional drivers. The demo video below shows 30 FPS being controlled by a time-of-flight camera (an ASUS Xtion in this case but that could change for production). Each panel draws about 300 mW at rest and typical full-motion operation is 25-50 W per panel but the system does have intelligent power design to cap total power draw.

Can you own one? Probably not — but that’s just because of your pocketbook. Breakfast wouldn’t give an exact price, but they did oblige when we asked for an approximation in terms of Honda Fits. Minimum order is 15 panels (140×84 pixels or about 7’x4.25′) and will run you about 6.25 Honda Fits.

Your workbench would look fantastic with one of these panels on it, right?
Your workbench would look fantastic with one of these panels on it, right?

Despite your not having low-six-figures lying around to spend on this, it is a notable development. The modernization of the driver, addition of an app and programming API, and a push to sell to a wider customer base should reinvigorate the occurrence of flip-dot displays which have been all but extinct this century. If there is a surge in purchases it will be many years before the secondary market benefits, but hopefully a groundswell of interest will encourage them to make the hacker-edition of their display available for a more… flippant… price.

We’ve seen a lot of work come out of Breakfast, notably this 6,400 pixel colored-thread display which is a mechanical engineering playground. When it comes to flip-dots, nothing beats what we saw at CES in 2015.

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