Some time in 2000, I was playing around with the idea of small cubes in design (evident in the "Random Weirdness" series of the time.) The 160px app came out of an idea - make something that users can design and contribute to the site.
The 160px image consists of a 32 x 5 grid of boxes - clicking a box toggles its state, "filled" or empty. Users can create an image and submit it to the site; the latest image is displayed for everyone else to look at. In that sense, it encourages people to make something cool and send it in. It's impressive what people can make with a 32-by-5 grid.
The hardware idea came around 2002 and spawned from some idea along the lines of, "Why not show submitted images on a hardware display? That would be cool. (Insert geek jokes here.)"
It took some time to get the parts needed (four 8x5 LED arrays from an electronic supplier, an array of transistors for providing power, the LCD controller from a Discovery Credit Card reader, and a power supply.)
Once assembled, a program was written to send instructions to the LCD controller chip - printing custom "characters" (effectively, patterns of pixels) which would physically be displayed as 8x5 rather than 5x8 (the standard character box) because of the way we were using the hardware.
One 160px image was made of four "custom characters" as defined by the LCD controller, which were then displayed on one physical 8x5 LED array (rotated 90° as mentioned above.)