Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Custom Photo Frame Display From Multiple Android Tablets

Giant Interactive Photo Array Display

Photo frame mounted on the wall without cover in Floating Image App
Having taking many photos of my family, I've bought a large photo frame that has multiple cut outs which lets me put on some of the photos on the wall. These photo frames have always taken a lot of effort to update as I've got to get the photos printed and then take the frame down to change the photos etc. meaning this doesn't happen very often (or ever...). So I've had this idea for a while where you could get multiple displays mounted on a frame and set the displays to do a slideshow. At first I thought about these digital photo frames however they're weren't that cheap and the resolution are terrible, plus updating them with new photos would take some effort in getting the SD cards updated with new sets of photos so I put this idea to bed for a while.

With the rise of tablets and many of the entry level ones becoming much cheaper I thought it'd be a good idea to revisit this project. Using tablets also lets each display connect to the internet where I can keep the photos all in one place and update them all at once by uploading the photos. I stated to investigate the things I need to put this idea together and one thing led to another giving us the results above (without mount board cover and finished product at the bottom) which I think you'll agree looks awesome! I've decided to call this project Giant Interactive Photo Array Display (Giant IPAD), see what I did there? ;-)

Below are some of the steps that I went through in the hope that if someone is keen enough to want to attempt something similar they will get some tips from this.

Quick Stats

Tablets: 20 Android tablets of 7" and 10" sizes
Time: October 2012 - September 2013
Cost: Probably cheaper to buy a 60" TV as the wife keeps saying but wouldn't have looked as inconspicuous or as high a resolution!

Gathering Tablets

First thing to do was to see how much the tablets would cost so I scoured eBay for broken Android tablets in the hope that I could fix them easily. I found a few for around £25 - £30 each which were described as non-working but only needed a firmware update. It turns out that these ones are the really slow resistive touch screen tablets with very narrow viewing angles so not very good for my purpose. After about 5 months of bidding on a few tablets I got lucky when a previous seller contacted me with offer for multiple 7" capacitive touch screens (Allwinner Q88) and a few 10" ones which had various hardware and software issues so I bought a load and tried to fix them all.
The viewing angles of these models weren't as good as the iPad (to be expected for the price) but they were better than the cheaper ones that I had so the project is officially a go.

Making The Frame

I was looking for off the shelf photo frame that I could use to mount the tablets in but couldn't find any of suitable size and depth so I decided to make the frame myself from 12mm MDF board and 4 pieces of building timbre for the sides. This was just as well 'cos I don't think a normal photo frame would take the weight of the tablets. I then positioned the tablets the way I wanted on the MDF to mark out the size of the frame and the holes to mount them.
Marking out the holes and positions of the tablets, note the post-it's so I know which tablets goes where!
Frame put together using angle brackets
Filling in the corners as I didn't have a proper mitre saw
Frame painted and finished

Mounting The Tablets

IKEA handles
I had various thoughts on how to mount the tablets all of which involved a lot of bending and cutting of metal which I didn't have any tools for but luckily I came across some cupboard handles from IKEA which were perfect for this so I got some for free (thanks IKEA!) as replacement parts for the cupboard 'cos they weren't on sale separately.

I then used some screws with self adhesive rubber bumpers to push the tablets up against the lip of the handle. The great thing about these handles are that the lip is very thin so when the mount board goes on top it looks flush with the tablets.

Rubber bumpers stuck to the head of the screws 
Trial fit of a tablet
How the tablets are mounted to the MDF board
Tablets all mounted

Power Supplies

Power supply project box
As with most cheap android tablets, the ones I bought were all 5v and 9v supplies with the same connector so I made up some of my own leads to connect them all together. At first I measured the current draw for each tablets and found that at 1.5A on average I would need quite a beefy power supply so I searched for anything over 10A at 5v and 9v. As I was wiring it all together I found that as the current was so high the voltage drop across the cables was big enough to stop the tablets from powering on so at the end I had to buy 2 x 5v power suppliers at 10A each to spread the load and 1 x 9v at 16A for the smaller number of 9v tablets. I also had to shorten the power cables going through the photo frame which meant that I have to mount the power supplies near the photo frame.
Project boxes connected together with a fan
The power suppliers were bare bones so I had to get a project box for it which I decided to connect 3 of these boxes together to make the wiring simple. I also drilled in lots of holes to allow the air to flow through and mounted a fan to cool the power supplies.

Finishes power supply mounted to the wall just below the photo frame, 2 x 5v 10A and 1 x 9v 16A


All wired up
I had 3 cables from the power supplies to the photo frame which I decided to use terminal blocks to split up the power in parallel to a third of tablets per power supply. As all the wires will be covered up I wasn't that concerned with keeping it neat. To make the frame look nice and neat on the wall I had the main power cables fed in through a hole in the wall, the other end comes out of the bottom of the wall to the power supplies.
Power cables are fed through the wall to hide them

Mount (Mat) Board

Tracing out the tablets using tracing paper
To cover up all the tablets and only show the screens I bought an A0 size mount board and then marked out the tablets using tracing paper which I can then transfer to the mount board. To make the cutting easier I bought a high quality mount board cutter which gives it bevelled edge on the board.

Cutting mount board using a proper cutter

I needed a way to mount the board to the frame which lets me install and remove it easily as I will probably need to get access to the on/off button of the tablets quite often so I put in screws on the MDF board where the head of the screw comes up level with the tablets and used self-adhesive neodymium coin magnets to stick the mount board to the screw posts. As these magnets are quite strong I only needed 6 magnets to hold up the board, however I found out later after mounting the frame on the wall that the mount board doesn't keep its flat shape well so I had to put in nearly 40 magnets all around the board to keep it all nice and flat.
Trialling the board with the tablets to make sure the holes are cut in the right place
10mm x 1mm N42 strength neodymium self-adhesive magnets

Magnets stuck on the mount board ready to be installed on the frame
Screw post for the magnet to stick to


I was looking around the play store to see if there are any good photo frame apps which can display photos from cloud storage (Picasa, facebook, sky drive etc.) so that I only need to upload the photos once and keep it all updated with new photos easily. I also tried to pick ones that will turn the screen on and off at specific times of the day to save electricity and prolong screen life (the displays and backlight on these tablets are pretty low quality so I wasn't sure if they will last long turning on 24/7). However not all of them do this so for some apps I had to use Tasker or Task Bomb to schedule the apps.

Social Frame HD is my favourite app as it has pretty nice transition and also shows the clock and weather forecast. The developer is pretty responsive to feature suggestions as well so I would highly recommend this app. Plus it's pretty cheap and when you buy it you can install to as many devices as you want. 2 small down sides to this app is it's only Android 3.0 and above (so doesn't work with all my cheap tablets) and doesn't do Picasa/Google+ Photos as photo source although the developer has plans to add this.

Floating Image is also a pretty good app with a very impressive floating mode which looks like a bunch of photos has been scattered and then flowing by, looks very impressive when all the tablets are set up in this mode. Embedded is a video showing the frame in this mode. Another good thing about this app is that it works with Android 1.6 and up. The down side is this app doesn't have a timer so needs to be scheduled by Tasker or Task Bomb and it doesn't display the photos in full screen (black bars top and bottom) for Android 2.2, I'm not sure why this is as the developer added the zoomed in function but it only works in Android 4.0.

PhotoFrame Slideshow Daydream is a very comprehensive app which does all that I need (pull photos from the cloud, has very reliable timer and works with Android 2.1 and up) however it's such a shame that the developer pulled it from the Play Store so now I can't buy it to get rid of the ads.

SlideShow Live Wallpaper is another one that I use with my Android 2.2 tablets which lets me display the photos full screen but doesn't connect with cloud storage or allow me to advance to next or previous photos.

I'd like to try Junkyard Jumbotron on this however MIT has pulled public host on this so I haven't had time to set up my own server to see how this works but I think it will look really cool.

As you can see I've tried quite a few apps however if you know of a better one that does what I need then please comment.

Wrap Up

Photo frame mounted on the wall without cover in Floating Image App
This is probably the most ambitious, longest and geekiest project that I've done so far so I hope this write up gives you some ideas of how to make a similar photo frame and I'm really looking forward to seeing someone else doing this and suggesting improvements. If you want to see more detailed photos of the project then visit my Google+ Photos Gallery.

Thing that I've learnt:

  • It's better to spend more to get better quality tablets than put up with bad viewing angles and unstable firmware.
  • Make sure the tablets are square with the edges of the frame unless you're going for the scattered photos look in which case make it obvious that the tablets are not meant to be level.
  • It's very important to find the right app, you wouldn't believe how long I've spent fiddling with the tablets to get them turning on and off properly.
  • Get a variable voltage power supply as the voltage drop across the cables could be quite big for high current load. This way you could bump up the voltage a little to compensate for the voltage drop.
  • Double check position and measurements of all tablets on the tracing paper before transfer to the mount board as you don't want to be cutting the holes in the wrong place!
Update 28 Dec 2013:

Thanks for all the comments and the shares! I've been featured on Hackaday.com, 361 Degrees Podcast (and winning an HTC One in the process as letter of the week!), and BitRebels.com. It's great to see some of the comments and the reaction on the interwebs!

Another app that I've found is Dayframe which includes all the features that I need (scheduler, Google+ Photos, clock, weather etc.) and I think the developer is looking to build some sort of remote control or set up functionality which can synchronise multiple tablets so you should also check them out.


  1. Nice, sounds like you should visit the recycling places here. I see lots of old tablet PCs here and even one at the charity shop.

    1. Thanks for the pointers, I've not thought about recycling centres and charity shops, might have been able to save some money if I did that...

  2. Nice project!

    Bumping up the voltage with a variable voltage power supply to provide the correct voltage at the load is not a good idea. When the current draw is lower, the voltage may be dangerously high at the device.

    A better solution might be to distribute the power at a higher voltage and have a small regulator close to the device.

    But for this size, it shouldn't be necessary. Just provide big enough wires to the device.

    1. I agree that when the current draw is low the voltage might be dangerously high therefore I meant that I could set the voltage to be the maximum that 1 tablet will take (say 6v vs 5v nominal) so the current draw is lowest so when all tablets are connected the tablets will still work with the voltage drop at high load.

  3. Amazing work!!!!! How large is it?

    1. It's 120cm by 85cm, so about the same size as as 60" TV.

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  17. Hi I'm looking to set up a android photo frame for my grandma. Any suggestions which app to use? It should preferable start automatically when you turn on the tablet but not sure if that is possible on non-rooted android (worst case unplug-plugin DC power looks to trigger an event for most of these photo frame apps). A free app without adds would also be nice. I'm looking to load photos from the whatsapp folder as my grandma doesn't have an unlimited internet connection and whatsapp auto-shrinks the photos.

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