I have determined the precise upper boundary of how many monitors it is ok to have hooked up to the same computer. I do not know, exactly, how many monitors is the ideal number. But I do know it is no more than eight.
In late October, colleague Eleanor Fye discovered a Craigslist post that — even by the standards of that particular internet rabbit hole — immediately stood out. Eight monitors, arrayed on what appeared to be a custom-made rig of steel piping, rope, and various other components, covered in a maze of cables and USB video hubs, and held up by a set of tension rods and stainless steel clamps. Completing the setup, vivid blue LED lights and a sort of coders’ throne in the form of what certainly appeared to be a stretcher suspended from yet more tension rods.
In other words, the kind of thing one would sit in while a bevy of generals who managed to survive a first strike yell over each other about whether you should launch retaliatory nukes, or perhaps play host to a malevolent artificial intelligence.
“After much deliberation, I’ve decided to sell it rather than fly back and try to ship it cross-country,” the ad read. “I was trying to hold out for $US2500 [$3,463], but I gotta get it out of the office.”
“This is unique and most people don’t get it at first glance,” it continued. “I built and refined this over a 2 year period. I used it for software development and LOVE it. You can have all your programs open and usable at once. I put about $US2300 [$3,186] and over 100 hours into designing/building/refining it (seriously… customisation takes forever).”
All this for the low asking price of $887, probably worth it for the six 1920 by 1200 and two additional 1920 by 1080 monitors collectively boasting nearly 18 million pixels alone. And our editor-in-chief, Kelly Bourdet, inexplicably agreed I should buy it, setting in motion a chain of events that I don’t quite regret but have yet to fully come to terms with.
As we prepared to retrieve what the Gizmodo staff would later refer to as “the rig,” I got some backstory from Jacob, its creator and the one trying to have it extricated from the office. Jacob told Gizmodo that he had built the device so that he could survey all eight monitors at once—the middle two containing 244 lines of code—without moving his neck. Armed with experience in product R&D at a machine shop, Jacob said he had spent hundreds of hours (including prior prototypes) and around $3,186 in parts working on his setup.
It turned out that disassembling and moving the rig was the easiest part, in part because managing editor Andrew Couts and his pickup truck were there to lend a hand. In a much larger part, it was that the reassembly was a constant reminder that unlike Jacob, I am not a mechanical engineer.
As someone who sometimes struggles to follow IKEA assembly instructions without ruinous outcomes, I was worried that I would risk my own safety (did), break something (also did), or simply struggle to understand the finer points of its setup and functioning (you betcha). Simply finding a place where the rig could be mounted in a New York office space with vaulted ceilings was a trial, until we realised it could be assembled in a closet. All other locations ran the risk of the rig tumbling down on me, and I suspected taking out its anger pursuing the other Gizmodo staff around like an ambulatory metal spider.
Some highlights: The rig came with quick-release monitor arms, making that part of the assembly relatively painless—although keeping the monitor arms from swinging around required a fair amount of steel cabling. Wary that Jacob had described the “fastest configuration procedure” for the USB video hubs as involving an 11-step process, it was a huge relief to see the rig work immediately upon installing the DisplayLink drivers on our Windows test machine and run at a steady 30-fps rate. And while we are able to mount the rig on its tension rods in a relatively stable manner, the chair itself had lost some parts during the move and had to be precariously secured to a vaulted ceiling at least 3.05m high. I wouldn’t advise sitting in it for long.
After all the sweat and tears, and steeling myself to mount my new cyberpunk throne, it was a small wonder to see all eight monitors click on at once, filling almost my entire field of vision with pure computer. Not so long after, though, it occurred to me that Jacob had built the rig so he could see code on every screen as he builds the apps of the future. I got it to… use Kinja and dick around on the internet. The rig is beautiful, but in practice, I struggled to think of any uses for it that wouldn’t amount to information overload.
Pixels, pixels everywhere, and too much space to think.
See, that’s the thing with monitors: You absolutely can have too many if you don’t have a specialised need for them. At home, I have two new LED screens — a 32 inch curved monitor and a smaller 24 inch flatscreen. The 24 inch one spends many of its days set to “off,” a routine that was slowly established as I concluded I’d rather alt-tab through a maze of windows on the larger screen than try to split my focus between both. My position on this subject is at least six years out of date, and the rig was several leaps in screen space too far for me to catch up.
Since the monitors weren’t arranged in anything resembling a standard aspect ratio, it also wasn’t suited to full-screen uses like playing video games or watching movies. As for the chair, suffice it to say that I didn’t find it very… ergonomic.
But that’s not the rig failing me. I failed the rig. I can’t computer hard enough to handle it. Where once it baffled me, it has now owned me. And now when I sit down at my computer, all I can think about is how many more monitors I could screw onto my wall. It’s somewhere less than eight. I think about two to four more would do the trick.