The Volokh Conspiracy

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My New Eight-Monitor Display

I added a mini-monitor, right behind my camera, to serve as a teleprompter during Zoom sessions.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Since December 2016, I have used the same seven-monitor display (six external monitors, plus my laptop's screen). It has worked fairly well for me. I long thought I reached the maximum number of feasible monitors. The limitation was not hardware–I had additional ports. Rather, the constraint was my neck. If I put monitors too far into my peripheral vision, I would not be able to see everything without spinning my chair around. The semi-circle configuration worked well for me.

But then we entered the age of Zoom, and I immediately encountered a problem. To make the experience as real as possible, I have to maintain eye-contact with the camera, non-stop. But, looking at notes broke that eye-contact. I flagged this issue back in March:

Also, look directly at the camera. When you are reading your notes, or glancing at another screen, your eyes drift around. This movement is very disconcerting. If you watch any effective television personality, he or she will have his eyes glued to the camera. I've practice this technique when I appear on TV hits. You should do the same. During the virtual class, I wasn't able to look at my notes as much as I would have liked to. As a result, I had to commit my lecture to memory in ways I usually would not have to. We have to adjust.

Eventually, I figured out a workaround. Professional cameras have built-in teleprompters. You can look directly at lens, and, through the magic of a one-way mirror, see the text you are supposed to read. That way, you can read the script, without breaking eye-contact. Randy and I used this system for our video series. It is much easier than memorizing a script. And, with practice, reading from a teleprompter becomes natural.

Rather than build a teleprompter on my web-camera, I decided to place a monitor immediately behind the camera. That way, it would appear that I am looking at the camera. But in fact I am reading the screen behind it. The solution? A tiny, 10 inch monitor. It cost $60 on Amazon. And I placed it right behind my laptop, but below my other displays. It nestles in perfectly with my regime.

Here are all 8 displays, in their pixelated glory:

I labelled the monitors, 1-8, for ease of reference.

I generally use Screen #1, my laptop screen, for my email. Throughout the day, this is the function I use the most. When I teach, I load Zoom on my laptop screen. That way I can watch the Zoom interface, while looking directly at the webcam. (I have the new Macbook Pro 2020 model, with the magic keyboard; it is orders of magnitude better than the butterfly keyboard).

Screen #2 sits immediately behind my laptop screen. It is at the same eye level as the web camera. I can use this tiny monitor for lecture notes. I can also use a teleprompter app, that automatically scrolls, if I ever need to read a script on camera. This screen is a game-changer for Zooming. You will also see that I upgraded to a Pyle podcast microphone. And I've long used a Logitech wireless USB mouse.

Screen #3 is rotated to a portrait view.  I use this monitor for the finder (file explorer) as well as chat features. Screen #4 is in standard landscape mode. I use this window for a browser, usually streaming video. Screen #5 is also for a browser, usually my RSS news feed (Feedly) or other news links. Screen #6 is for my Google Drive files. Screen #7 is rotated to a portrait mode. I use it to type in Microsoft Word. Typing in a portrait mode is a game-changer. You can see an entire page at once, including the footnotes. Yes, you can edit footnotes without having to jump up and down. This approach saves more time than you realize. And Screen #8 is for reading PDFs, also in portrait mode. In short, I have three portrait monitors, and three landscape monitors. The additional portrait monitors shrink the footprint of my setup, and limits the range of peripheral vision I need.

I use a basic setup to run all of these monitors. Nothing too fancy. The Macbook Pro has 4 USB-C ports. I use one for dedicated power. The second port connects to a Matrox Triple-Head device. I've had this same gadget for nearly a decade, and it is perfect: it connects three monitors in landscape mode. (Here, Screens #4, #5, and #6). The third port connects to a USB hub. This device has three monitors (Screens #3, #7, and #8) connected through USB via Displaylink. The newest addition, Screen #2, connects through the fourth port to another USB Hub via HDMI. I also plug my microphone and wireless mouse into the second USB hub. I tried to plug all of the devices into a single USB hub, but it drew too much power.

Here are the two hubs:

Here is the layout of all of the screens, together (the three Matrox screens are represented with the long blue rectangle):

A few tips. The monitor stands are not designed to hold two portrait monitors. They become too top-heavy, and are prone to tip over. To remedy that problem, I perch the portrait monitor on the desk. (See Screens #3 and #7). I also put 10 pound weights around the base. I find the ankle-weights are ideal, because they wrap around the base snugly.

I do not play games. Nor do I day-trade. Nor do I mine bitcoin. I use all of these monitors to write and teach. I very much enjoy my home office.

 

 

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28 responses to “My New Eight-Monitor Display

  1. Holy cow, that’s a setup.

    Also, C-clamps for tipping problems.

    1. I initially thought the same too. But if you go that route, C-clamps would not keep the ‘clean look’ like the rest of the office. They would be incongruent.

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  2. Wow. Impressive layout. I find laptop keyboards so unnatural…it’s hard for me to imagine setting up a long-term workflow without having a normal keyboard to use…I type at least 25% faster with a normal keyboard and make at least 50% fewer typing errors as well. But maybe for the younger crowd, who grew up using laptop keyboards (exclusively??), this is not such a critical factor.
    But I digress…was really interesting to see how complicated it could be to set up a really effective work-from-home environment for someone to lectures or gives presentations.

    1. I never work on a laptop keyboard if I can avoid it. I like having all of the F keys and number pad keys unencumbered for their traditional functions and my various legal writing hot keys and macros (e.g., paragraph symbol, section symbol, optional nonbreaking space).

      1. (I meant no-width optional break.)

    2. It’s been over a quarter century since my first laptop, and I still hate using their keyboards and touch pad. If I am going to be using one a lot I will inevitably run an external keyboard and mouse, and often a second monitor. I type much faster with a regular keyboard, and esp using an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. I was taught to type on a typewriter back in HS, thanks to a grandmother who taught typing at some point (she went on to teach accounting, but started with typing and shorthand in the 1920s). Back then, it was mostly girls taking typing. But it paid off, when I went into software after college.

      In any case, I work best with a slight spread between the two hands, and moved to a forward angle (front below back of keyboard) on the keyboard after getting mousing elbow about 20 years ago. The physical therapist pointed out that pianists don’t have nearly the problem with their wrists that typists do, because of the angle they hold their wrists at is at more of an angle, esp with most modern keyboards being set with a backwards angle (rear below the front – exactly the opposite of what the PT suggested) stressing the wrists. Maybe gobblygook, but it works for me. I also like the slightly bigger keys set at a more natural arrangement, and the ability to automatically center my hands almost instantly by touch.

      As for mice, I prefer ergonomic ones with scroll and zoom, as well as multiple buttons. Typically I have one button set to “minimize”, and another to “close”. I often work with drawings so scrolling right and left is helpful, along with the usual up and down.

      I think that it is generational. My kid got their PhD in engineering last year, so lives on their laptop. But does just fine with the builtin one, and the touchpad, which for me is much worse than the builtin keyboard. They were progressing at work in adapting to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, with a docking station (or now, a USB hub), but they are apparently reverting, working now from home 4 days a week.

  3. If you’ve collected monitors over the years, by all means use what you’ve got. But, assuming you’re starting from scratch and don’t have bad eyes, I’d go with two 38″ 3840×1600 monitors to cover all of space, and you can keep your laptop and cheater monitor.

    1. I was going to say this exact thing. I’m sure his monitors aren’t even running in 1920×1080 resolution. I have one 43″ 4K TV as my desktop screen. The resolution allows me to have multiple windows opened and viewable at once without the wild set up. Having 2 of these along with his #1 and #2 screens as used would work perfectly as you said.

  4. Can you limit these completely-nonlegal posts to your … personal blog …

    1. Count me as one vote for “completely disagree.”

      The creator of this site (and his brother) used to have many posts related to poems, and songs, and puzzles, and other subjects entirely extra-legal. Not nearly as many now. But I think I’m not alone in enjoying posts that cover sports, or entertainment, or computer stuff, or whatevs.

      Fortunately, it is super-easy to avoid posts one is uninterested in by using the scroll function or the Page Down button to jump over said posts.

      “Keep ’em coming!” is my advice.

    2. It took you longer to write that comment than it would have to just scroll down to the next blog post.

    3. Answer: No

  5. That set up is insane. Gloriously, impressively insane. But I have an old, 20″ monitor sitting in a box that I might try using as a teleprompter. Thanks for posting this and planting the idea.

  6. What is important is that it suits your needs and gratifies you when you use it. Beyond that, de gustibus non est disputandum.

  7. Professor Blackman, is that real? That setup looks … too clean! No pens, papers, or the assorted junk. LOL But seriously, thank you, as I appreciate the hints as we all look at starting work online.

  8. Wow — I know about Moore’s Law but I am still amazed that you can drive that many screens without having to put extra video boards in.

    1. Looks like the images are going to be largely static and no 3D rendering going on at all, so the load is going to be very light.

  9. If it works for you, then to each his own. However, that setup looks like an ergonomic nightmare. If I find out who your chiropractor is I’ll buy stock in his practice! I also wonder how all those screens available simultaneously impact focus and productivity; do you literally need all that screen real estate all the time? Really? I’ve had as many as 4 monitors at once, but I’ve settled on three as the sweet spot, two portraits, and one landscape. There are utilities and ways to have groups of applications or browser tabs come and go in unison depending on the particular task at hand. With fewer larger monitors, you can automate how the screens split up into different windows, again depending on the task at hand. Also, there are multi-monitor stands that go up as well as across which may be more practical. If you need to attach weights to a monitor stand to keep from tipping I think it may be time to consider a more robust stand or stands built for the weight required.

    Side note: If you are doing a lot of video streaming you may want to consider upgrading your video tech beyond the laptop webcam which most likely is too low and shoots into your nostrils. You can get a nice but relatively inexpensive interchangeable lens camera and some LED panels and it will level up your video picture quality dramatically. A nice lavalier mic is inexpensive and sounds much better than the laptop built-in mic. The YouTuber crowd has these issues all figured out.

  10. Interesting. Gave me some ideas.

    I have a hard time running with just one screen anymore. Actually, I was doing the equivalent of 2 and 3 monitors 30 years ago. Then it was multiple computers pretending to be working together. I ran four side by side in portrait mode when I was doing a lot of patent work. Normally, I would run with three on the task. So, I would have have an office action from the examiner on the left, the amendment I was working on in the middle and the reference I was analyzing to the right. On occasion I would bring up the drawings on the monitor to the far right. Or I would use it for email games, etc. amazingly, when I was in a big firm a decade ago, about 5% of the 500 over so lawyers and staff had two monitors, but I was the only one with more than two. Our IT people thought be eccentric. For one thing our Dell boxes would support two monitors, but needed another board for more, that I had to buy myself (along with the extra monitors).

    Maybe 5 years ago, I found a 4x monitor stand. It doesn’t work well with portrait monitors so I have them all in landscape. I am not doing patent work anymore, so it isn’t as bad as it would have been. I also have a 32” TV as a fifth monitor to one side, if I need it. Resolution sucks, but it does work for things like fie listings. And to watch TV, of course. I may try it for teleconferencing meetings, but would have to move the camera. Or add another one.

    Building a new office this summer. Thinking of using the same sort of TV arms I use for wall mounting TVs, bolted to the wall. I like the wraparound effect. (My 4x stand has two rows of monitors on a curved bar). Should be even easier with those wall mounts.

    The amazing thing is that technology in this area hasn’t really advanced much in the last 30 years. We got color monitors, then bigger ones, and better resolution. I have tried one big monitor, and that is just too slow, manipulating the windows. Maybe with all of this remote work, teaching, meetings, etc, we can finally break out of this monitor paradigm. Maybe some sort of VR setup that allows manipulation of as any screens as you need. Except that isn’t going to be that helpful if you are running a class, and you are trying to fake eye contact.

    1. The speed of light remains 186,000 miles per second.

      I’m not being sarcastic here — a 20′ cable is an incredibly long distance when you compare it to the microscopic distances on an IC chip or even on a board. And if you are sending LOTS of data over said cables, there inherently is a limit on both the amount of data and the time it takes to get there. And if you compress data, there is the time to both compress and uncompress it.

      Monitors are just fancier versions of circa-1950’s TV sets — there are rows of dots which the monitor repeatedly “paints” knowing that the human eye isn’t good enough to tell the difference between what is illuminated and what was a fraction of a second ago. (Take a picture of a monitor with a digital camera.)

      You can adjust your “refresh rate” — how frequently your monitor(s) repaint the entire image, that will be somewhere in your settings (unless Bill Gates decreed it blocked) and the thing to remember is that anything other than incandescent lamps (and true DC-powered LED lights) are actually blinking off 120 times a second because the 60 hertz/cycle AC power goes to zero volts 120 times a second before reversing. (Think sine curve.)

      Years back, with Cathode Ray Tube monitors, this was an issue with SPED because they were running off the same AC power and hence their flash rate was coordinated with the flash rate of the overhead florescent lights. Not so much now with LCD monitors because they are all running on low voltage DC (and have a transformer/rectifier unit).

      1. One other thing: I would definitely unplug the computer connection to the monitors in a thunderstorm — I’m told that some parts of Texas get rather impressive ones.

        It’s the EMP from the lightning bolt (the static you hear on your AM radio. Wires act as an antenna and it becomes an electrical current in the wires — this is why you want a surge protector on your telephone or CATV connection. It’s *not* lightning directly hitting the line (although that can happen) but the magnetic field from a nearby bolt of lightning — even cloud-to-cloud lightning.

        All of those cables between your computer and the various monitors run significant distances when you realize just how little electricity it takes to fry a computer and they’d make excellent antennas to pick up the EMP. Even if they are shielded (USB usually is), that’s just an external conductor — a wire running directly to the innards of your computer.

        I’d be inclined to “island” the computer in severe thunderstorms — physically disconnect the usb wires from the computer.

  11. Am I the only one to notice and comment on the tongue-in-cheek?

    I am thankful to not live in a Zoom world, Otay Zoomers?

  12. Fascinating! I’m envious.

    Thanks for all the great writing.

  13. Ok, I have a different kind of question for Professor Blackman. How do you keep track of 8 displays simultaneously? That has to be mentally taxing.

  14. An impressive feat for a layman, for a professor it is amazing, and for a law professor it is an absolutely astounding display of technical expertise.

  15. “Now witness the power of a fully operational battle station!”

Comments are closed.