MachinePix Weekly #44: Dorrian Porter, CEO, Vestaboard

Dorrian Porter talks about recreating the split-flap display for the modern era and novel ways of displaying information. This week's most popular post was a transforming theater 🎭

This week I learned a lot about something I’ve loved since I was a kid: the split-flap display. You know, those big mechanical displays at airports and train stations that flip-flap to update information with a distinctive, oddly-romantic shuffling sound.

Dorrian Porter, the CEO of Vestaboard, sat down with me and talked about the history of the split-flap display, why they’re awesome, and how his team has been recreating the technology for the Internet era.

The most popular post this week was a theater that could transform itself, built by Gala Systems.

I’m always looking for interesting people to interview, have anyone in mind?

—Kane


Interview with Dorrian Porter

Of all the things to work on, what inspired you to bring back the split-flap display with Vestaboard?

I'd been an entrepreneur for maybe 16 years when I started Vestaboard. Both previous companies I’d worked on were software companies. I think this concept came to me at some point, maybe in 2012, when I was walking through the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, and I was thinking about my kids.

And at the time I was working on a software company that did a lot of mobile-to-display technology. So, if you went to a Live Nation venue, you could use your phone to send a message to the large screen at a Taylor Swift show. So that idea of interacting with your world using your mobile phone appealed to me. I imagined sending my kids messages to a screen at home, and I just thought how a digital screen would be typical, but something as delightful as a split flap wasn't. And I knew that if I was using a TV to send my messages to my kids, it would probably just get quickly turned away to whatever show they were watching.

When I think about the internet, we obviously are very device centric. It started on the PC, it moved to the mobile phone. Now it's PC and mobile, but as we enter this era of IoT, there's really no stopping what the internet is going to affect. And I was always fascinated with the idea of display technology. I remember reading an article in 1999 about Bill Gates decking out his home with all of these digital displays that could update real time art and statistics.

And when I thought about the split flap, to me, it wasn't about doing something retro. It probably could be used to make something beautifully designed that could be controlled via the internet. So to me it's like “wow, this split flap technology is really cool—no, one's tried it for 40 years and maybe the circumstances exist now where we could actually design a compelling display for the modern world that's still connected to the internet.”

Who used to make these things? When and why did they stop?

Well, the first split- flap was patented, I think in 1903, called the Plato Clock. That was an American invention actually, which most people don’t realize when they think about split-flaps. They probably think about Europe because, in the thirties and forties, there was a company called Solari Udine, which is from Udine, Italy. Solari really popularized them through the train stations and airports in Europe and in the United States in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties even. And then they stopped. There was a surge of digital display technologies that really undercut their price point.

Solari is actually still making them—you can go and buy one from Solari, but it'll cost you like half a million dollars to get something reasonable made for your train station. The display in the San Francisco Ferry Building is a few hundred thousand dollar item. Digital displays just came along and, you know, pushed down cost by a hundred times and caused Solari to switch their business to digital. But they're still making the split-flap. When I think about the split-flap, there's still this very romantic feeling about train stations and airports that digital doesn’t quite have.

What’s your personal favorite split-flap display in the wild?

Historical split-flap displays or ones that are still operating in the world? I mean, I walked through Gare du Nord and I think actually this is where the whole inspiration came from, that train station in Paris. I have a photo I'll send you that has that, that split-flap. It's just so remarkable and impressive. You just stop there and look up at it and off it goes. So we definitely play off the romance of split-flaps. But I also think one of my theories is still that it's just impressive in its own right. If you show this to a child, who's never walked through the Paris train station, they get enamored with it because it's moving and it's interesting and it captures the attention.

I predict, I hope, if you're a child and you see a Vestaboard at age eight, you're going to remember the Vestaboard 10 years from now, because it has such an impact on you. And that's where we get our romantic notions from. Trying to capture the feeling of walking through the airport or the train station.

You had posted some videos about testing the individual units, which you call Bits. What's been the hardest part of creating this display technology again.

Yeah. I mean, it was price and quality. You know, trying to get a split flap mechanism that met our size criteria because we chose 132 character units to be the size of the Vestaboard—it was a function of what would work well on most walls. It wouldn't seem gigantic, and it would fit nicely in smaller spaces. And then we kind of worked backwards from the size of the best board we wanted and the number of characters. And then we said “okay, well, what kind of mechanism are we working with?” Looking at the motors, looking at the characters needed and therefore the resolution, and the number of actual characters we could have in the Bit. That hardest part was trying to determine how to make it at the right quality and price.

What we have now is something that looks fairly simple in design, but at some point we had the motor external to the wheel. We ended up putting the motor inside the wheel, and that was a non-trivial challenge. Getting the flaps printed properly has been hard too. So when you have 64 characters, getting that printed dye cut to consistent quality has been an extreme challenge. Just by nature of the volume, we've sold thousands of these devices, which means we've made hundreds and hundreds of thousands of bits and millions and millions of flaps. We've had batches printed of character units that just don't meet our quality standards and had to scrap or keep for testing. It took us a long time to design a bit that was designed for manufacturing at the price and quality we needed.

There’s also a semiconductor shortage right now, and we have this one chip we use one per column, and they’ve been challenging to get ahold of. Some company like Sony might be sitting on hundreds of thousands, and we only need tens of thousands, but they’re looking for millions and obviously they’re not willing to share because they’re facing their own shortages. That’s been really tough.

Did you have to start from scratch, or was there a corpus of knowledge to build from?

Yeah, there's a lot that is essentially out of patent that we could break down. But we didn't do a lot of reverse-engineering; we bought a few old clocks but it turns out clocks are easy because they're just going at one character at a time, instead of precisely jumping to arbitrary characters. So they're using some gearing mechanisms that make their lives easier. But we have to use a stepper motor we can finely control, and fit it inside the Bit. We also looked at a solenoid motor, but that created its own set of challenges with noise.

A lot of the larger displays like the train stations, that wasn't really the same challenge as us because they could put big motors on the outside of the wheel. They tend to be, you know, six inches long and two or three inches high and two inches wide. Ours is 2.5 x 1.4 inches, I think. It's a pretty, pretty small unit. And we kind of had to design from scratch. I mean, I think the idea to put the motor inside the wheel just emerged at some point, and we haven't seen any example of anyone doing that. Just figuring that out was a huge challenge: how do you design the motor carrier? How do you then design it in a way that could be manufactured and assembled? Even a few of our original designs, you could look at it and say, well, there's no way a manufacturer is going to be able to figure out how to actually make that work well at scale.

You mentioned there are a few thousand in the wild; who’s come up with the most creative use of a Vestaboard?

That’s a good question. My favorite use of Vestaboard is right now is the real-time sports scores that we have going on. We've got a platform where developers are building what we call Installables. And one developer came along and offered realtime updates on a premier soccer league, NHL, NBA, NFL & MLB. And so you'll be sitting here. I've got one behind me and 10 minutes before a game, it'll just come on saying there's a game in 10 minutes, and then every minute or two, it'll just update a few of the tiles, letting you know, if there's any change in score or change in time left or anything like that.

That's my absolute favorite because if you've got a favorite team and they're coming on to play, you’re getting those real-time sports scores running through your Vestaboard. It's pretty cool. 

Have you started exploring any future product opportunities?

For now, it's definitely all focused on our flagship product. This is our first full year of shipping, so we want to make sure we scale and grow into next year. And so the whole team is just making sure that our customers are happy, excited, and that we're producing quality product. That's the focus, but you know, I think this idea of messaging displays, and we talk a lot about shared messaging, there are many different products we could create along that theme. And they don't all have to be split-flaps, but we chose split-flap because number one, it was cool. But number two, because it offers such a much more beautiful design for my original intent, which was this idea of sending quotes to your children or communicating with your family.

It's just a beautiful display, but as you know, there are lots of ways to create beautiful displays. So we're going to look at different materials and different ways to create future displays. But this year, next year, we're going to focus on our flagship product.

Do you have a favorite novel display technology? Off the top of my head Breakfast, the studio in New York did that thread-based display, which remains one of my favorites. I was wondering if any came to mind for you.

That's a good question. I will say I remember that one. You might've sent it to me actually, but I definitely think there's something fascinating there. I’m interested in materials and media that we haven't fully realized yet. I’m excited that OLEDs are coming fast and whatever's next is going to follow that. It's looking more lifelike. The blacks are true and matte. But I think anything physical that's moving is cool. I think we're going to see lots of new ways of displaying information with connected devices. That's just fascinating in terms of how people get information or what's being alerted.

Some of the display projection stuff is interesting for sure, because you're starting to see how a device might be able to project on one wall and then switch walls or switch to the table or other surfaces. But I also think you're going to see some physical objects play roles that you might not expect. That's going to be the most fascinating.

How did you get involved in the San Francisco Museum of Craft & Design?

I heard through a friend that they were evaluating new board members and this friend had suggested they talk to me. When I met with the Executive Director and a couple of the board members, that just seemed to make sense. For me, I was looking to do something in addition to entrepreneurship. And so joined the board and then was lucky enough to serve as Chair for three years. And you know, the goal has been to continue to expand awareness.

The museum’s in a neat spot in the Dogpatch. Not everyone has heard about it, but obviously craft and design is just something that more and more people are interested in, and “craft” kind of gets a bad rap. At some point in the nineties, a lot of museums took “craft” out of their name, thinking that they were getting attached to, you know, the idea of just casual pottery or just textiles.

But I’ve really grown to appreciate the word craft, both being involved with the museum and just thinking about it more. The idea that you can become expert in something, the idea that you carefully think through your materials and how those materials get put together in whatever you're doing. It doesn't need to just apply to objects. It could apply to any kind of performance, like acting—the craft of acting. The expertise involved is something that's really important to preserve for future generations. And so the intersection of craft and design and sometimes art I've found pretty fascinating.

I really enjoyed the recent Moto MMXX exhibit and the Dead Nuts precision machining exhibit in ‘19; what are some upcoming exhibits for the re-opening?

On the topic of imaging technologies and displays: There's a team out of Europe called Bull.Miletic. They really look at all types of digital media and installations that kind of really bend the mind. They're going to do an exhibit on projection technologies, whether it's using drones or all of the different ways that you might be able to start to project visual images into the world and how that might impact art and design and the world simultaneously.

Any side projects you’re working on right now?

Unfortunately no! I work on Vestaboard and family all the time now.

Any favorite books or books you’re reading now?

My favorite book is Never Ending Story, which I will throw out there in case no one's ever heard of it. But it’s a German book that has been translated to English. They also made a movie in the eighties, I think. But I'm a big believer that we are in a never-ending story.

What’s your favorite simple (or not so simple) tool or hack that you think is under-appreciated?

I thought about this question. I feel embarrassed, but the one I’m going to say is just archive your email. At some point I used to run a massive inbox. The world's probably divided into archivists and non-archivists, for sure. I think that one might be a religious battle.


The Week in Review

I’d seen tetrapod structures used as breakwaters, but they’re usually jumbled near seawalls—the Levvel blocks seem to be stacked a lot more precisely. I wonder what the advantage is?


I always wondered how they got live Christmas trees into those bags.


Postscript

I’ll be in NYC next week, my first business trip after vaccination! Who’s around?

I am always looking to connect with interesting people and learn about interesting machines—reach out.

—Kane