Long, drawn-out lectures are perfect for whipping out your omnipresent academic sidearm and scribbling on a piece of paper. Half of the results may be considered slightly more than just a splotch of ink or multivitamin juice. A tenth may be somewhat recognisable, real world look-a-likes. One or two may actually hold some promise. In Concepts, I will try to capture some of those wild, unrestrained ideas and explore them in more depth.
Chewing the back of your pencil and staring at a notebook for multiple hours each day easily gets you thinking about user input, note-taking and usability. What would it take to have a paper-thin, ultra-portable interactive display, one that would draw information from the environment, react to user input, and be as reliable as a piece of paper, yet infinitely more useful? Why has such a vision not yet been realised, or, more likely, is it even possible? Read on for musings on the display of the future.
Today’s Tech with Future Potential
There are two major possible paths that display and interactive screen manufacturers can take as they sketch out their plans for further development. One is the more traditional: increase pixel density and decrease girth as much as is possible with the most recent technologies. Such goals are obvious behind the industrial design decisions of recently popular consumer devices such as Apple iPhone 4’s high-resolution Retina Display and huge flat widescreen living room TVs. Both are extremely appealing to customers, and understandably so. However, this approach has inherent limitations. Pixels cannot continue getting smaller forever; as it is, manufacturers are already challenged by physics in regards to how small display elements and electronic components can get. Neither can the products get any thinner than they are today without running into usability problems – you are not likely to be happy if your newly purchased paper-thin device would crumple to bits in your pocket during a brisk jog. New features such as 3D TV may be incrementally introduced into the market, yet convincing customers that such options are more than merely expensive gimmicks may be a challenge.
The other path is perhaps more unorthodox and less explored. While most competitors are struggling with reducing the size of their display components, several manufacturers have chosen to eschew the physical display altogether. When asked where they see the future heading, the answer is simple: projectors. Hitherto, projectors have largely been bulky and clunky machines, hulking in the corner of some forgotten boardroom. Only the occasional home theatre enthusiast would purchase a projector for home entertainment. In the future, however, expect pico projectors in every smartphone. Recently, pico projectors have seen the light of day in the consumer market, and are becoming viable options for viewing your pictures, movies, and other content. Both LG’s eXpo phone and Nikon’s Coolpix S1100pj camera sport projectors amongst their feature list, promising portable entertainment of any size. Although this market is yet at its infancy, it holds a lot of potential. Admittedly, it has its own flaws and limitations in terms of becoming commercially-viable and consumer-friendly, yet once these are overcome, the ceiling for innovation is far away.
As of yet, the display of the future is simply wild speculation. But even that has limits: there is only so much that such a display could become. Namely, there are three possibilities. It may be that all three of these will exist and compete, or either one will dominate. But unless miracles were to occur, the possibilities are as such:
1. An ultra-thin, 3D-capable pixel-dense display.
2. A tiny, high-resolution pico projector.
3. An interplay of the two.
I will henceforth discuss each one of these in turn, the first part covering the idea of an ultra-thin display.
The Ultra-Thin Display
In 1954, TV underwent a monumental transition — color TVs hit the market.
In 2010, 1954 was repeated, this time with 3D home entertainment.
In 2054, we will revolutionise the way you experience your content once again.
Not convinced? This is what the industry specialists have to say about Paper™:
We worked our butts off.
– Stobs Jeve, CEO of Paper Inc., on build quality
Magical. Revolutionary. It’s 2007 all over again.
– Jolsky Toposhua, editor-in-chief of Engadget, on design
Number of pixels > number of neurons in my brains. Mind = blown.
– Natel Pilay, managing editor of Engadget, on pixel density
Paper™? What Paper™?!
– Bram Lian, editorial director of Gizmodo, on thinness
It’s so realistic, it’s almost real!
– Kerman Gent from CNET reviews on 3D effect
It’s just like paper, but with multi-touch, and media capabilities, and 3D, and 5G, and video calling, and… [redacted for brevity]
– Chacqui Jeng, Senior Paper Inc. Editor at Ars Technica, on software
This is Paper™, the ultimate interactive display of the future. With the dimensions and flexibility of the ubiquitous A4 sheet of paper, Paper™ is so much more. With 64GB of integrated SSD memory, expandable by microSD, it can hold millions of documents and thousands of hours of your HD video. Watch TV shows anywhere, on the go or at home, using the ultra-fast 5G network, currently the international standard for high-speed file transfer. Adore the high-fidelity and deep color output of the Super OLED display. Video chat with your friends over Wi-Fi or 5G using the 8MP front facing camera. Interact by finger or with pen, using intuitive gesture controls to raise your productivity to new heights. Tabbed multitasking allows note-taking, a high-end mic enables voice recording, and a soft multi-touch keyboard that spans the width of the device is both fast and responsive. All this, and more, rollable in the palms of your hands.
Back to Real Life
How feasible would such a product be? Apart from obtaining the trademark, it would likely be much more feasible than most people would think. A recent SEC filing by LG revealed that the electronics company intends to release a 19-inch flexible e-paper display in the near future. Already in May of 2007, the company showed off a color e-ink 14.1″ flexible A4-size display not much unlike our hypothetical example. Sony Corporation has shown off a working, rollable organic thin-film transistor OLED display that can wrap around a pencil. Toshiba Corp has developed a bendable paper-thin LCD display which can interpret input from the way it is bent.
Clearly, there is heated competition from companies vying for their logo to be inscribed on such an awe-inducing display. How could it house all of components that go into devices such as Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy Tab?
Thankfully, researchers and manufacturers are exploring ways to make electronic components other than screens thinner as well. In late 2009, University of Tokyo revealed that they had developed ultra-thin, organic flash memory (that can for now, unfortunately, only retain data for a day). In August, Sandisk showed off “a new class of storage” – integrated SSD, a 64GB drive the size of a penny. With the increase in bandwidth speeds and the rising popularity of cloud-based storage, however, the need for large amounts of local memory on any future device may be eliminated altogether.
Nevertheless, a display would still need a source of power. This may be solar, as in the case of the ultra-efficient flexible solar cells developed by Caltech. Or it may be the kinetic force generated by bending and handling the device itself. Or it may use some incarnation of wireless power that has been promised for so long.
The End of Episode 1
So when could we expect a Paper™? 5 years? 10 years? With the unpredictability of advance in this market, it is impossible to say. The technology is clearly nearing the level required, if it has not surpassed it already. We may have to wait before all the components required are easy enough and commercially viable to manufacture. But once that is the case, all we will need is for one company to take a risk. I highly doubt that they would regret the consequences.
Return -next week- sometime for pt. 2. Meanwhile, do not hesitate to tell all about your wildest dreams in the comments below!