The SD-11 Sphericular Display: Pixels that Aren’t Pixels

Ever heard of a sphericular display? [AnubisTTP] laid hands on a (damaged) Burroughs SD-11 Sphericular Display and tore down the unusual device to see what was inside. It’s a type of projection display with an array of bulbs at the back and a slab of plastic at the front, and the rest is empty space. The usual expected lenses and slides are missing… or are they? It turns out that the thin display surface at the front of the unit is packed with a two- dimensional 30 x 30 array of small lenses, a shadow mask, and what can be thought of as a high-density pixel mask. The SD-11 was cemented together and clearly not intended to be disassembled, but [AnubisTTP] managed to cut things carefully apart in order to show exactly how these fascinating devices solved the problem of displaying digits 0-9 (with optional decimal points) on the single small screen without separate digit masks and lenses to bend the light paths around.

The “pixel mask” of the SD-11

The face of the display can be thought of as a 30×30 array of pixels, with each of the microlenses in the lens array acting as one of these pixels. But these pixels are not individually addressable, they light up only in fixed patterns determined by the “pixel mask”. How exactly does this happen? With each microlens in the array showing a miniature of the bulb pattern at the rear of the display, a fixed image pattern can be shown at the front by putting a mask over each lens: if a certain bulb at the rear needs to result in a lit pixel at the front, that mask has a hole in that bulb’s location. If not, there is no hole and the light is blocked. Just as the compound lens is a two-dimensional array of microlenses, so is the light mask really a two-dimensional array of smaller masks: exactly one per microlens. In this way the “pixel mask” is how each bulb at the rear results in a fixed pattern (digits, in this case) projected at the front.

The Burroughs SD-11 Sphericular Display was very light, containing mostly empty space where other projection displays had lenses and light masks. It turns out that the SD-11 operates using the same principles as other projection displays, but by using a high-density light mask and a compound lens array it does so by an entirely different method. It’s a great peek into one of the different and fascinating ways problems got solved before modern display solutions became common.

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