This week marked the release of the latest iteration of the Kindle. E-ink doesn't quite square with visions of 'futuristic screens' – yet here it is, comfortably assured of its place amid our pantheon of attention-occupying screens that occupy our attention.
Picture the 'future of screens' as a vista you can look out upon. Your gaze will alight upon a vale festooned with the detritus of ridiculous interface fantasies and teeming with user experience imaginations running riot. It's a place where big corporations can spend silly money demonstrating how out of touch they are with user uptake of technology; a place littered with gadgets that make scant sense mere years after their invention, and a place populated in equal measure with 'gee whiz' and LOL moments.
Let me take you on a top 10 tour of where the ‘future of screens’ signposts towards today.
Picos and the “project onto anything” maxim
Portable projectors that “transform any surface into a screen” are almost the also-ran of the ‘future screens’ race: always on the cusp, never breaking the market. There's a niggling feeling that Google Glass and augmented reality (see below) would nail the coffin shut for good. But that might be presumptuous – BYOB parties have shown that there's a lot of fun to be had from post-digital projection pop-ups.
AR and HUDs
AR is the acronym for augmented reality – a technology that hasn’t yet caught on because viewing your world through your smartphone is stupid; stupid enough that even the people who queue for iPhones won't drink that Kool Aid. The efforts of Google Glass (and its increasing competitors) efforts to make heads-up displays (HUDs) into desirable wearable computing could change AR’s fortunes dramatically. Still, Layars' blatant rip off of Artvertiser shows there is fun to be had, and these infrared AR tags coming out of Disney research labs are a nice way of circumventing how awful QR codes and their ilk look.
We love holograms, even more so since the ‘holla-gram’ subgenre of haunted illusions ignited the imaginations of appalled Tupac afficiandos at Coachella 2012. This software uses the popular ‘post touch’ interface Leap Motion to let you create digital “pepper’s ghost” effects (the method that conjured Pac onstage).
If you’re not bothered with creating your own bespoke illusion then the Displair is the interface for you. The bastard love child of a Dyson air blade and a humidifer creates a jetstream of air to create a floating (and moist) touchscreen interface.
Everything has eyes
The same sophistication of webcam hardware that lets Leap Motion et al make tracking finger gestures a doddle also means shrinking webcams capable of face and eye tracking. In ‘futuristic screen land’, screen watches you! So this software, plus aforementioned cheaper and smarter webcams, plus ubiqutious pico projectors means a future of headtracked, projected screens catered to your gaze and pre-empted needs. Right?
Samsung caused a stir with their bendy smartphones at the CES this year. The tech in question is a bit of a cheat – only the screen is flexible, the computational guts of the phone have to be housed in a hard casing tethered to the flexible screen. For now at least, research is ongoing into making flexible electronics components beyond the marvellous OLEDs. Coupled with sellotape speakers and Corning’s willow glass and a bendable transparent smartphone (or smartwatch) could be coming down the pipeline – if anybody actually wants such a thing.
Urban locomotion GIFs
OLEDs are a sweet piece of kit but lets not forget the possibilities still afforded by the humble LED. Monkeylectric have carved out an interesting niche for themselves, selling kits to transform bike wheels into a canvas suited for looping pixellated animations. Consider that one more piece of visual real estate in the urban environment transformed into another non-interactive screen.
Get a bit of rough into your gadgets
The lack of physical depth or texture on your screen may not be troubling you but it’s clearly vexing a number of R&D departments who are developing some pretty neat ways to give a sense of palpability back to our screens. Senseg’s E-Sense technology uses ‘tixels’ (tactile pixels) to generate an electric field several millimeters above a device’s surface. This enables finely-tuned sensations to be created on the your skin. Disney are working on even cooler tech, called Revel, which lets you programme a texture onto any conductive surface (read our interview with the mastermind of Disney’s touch based research, Ivan Poupyrev, here).
Staying on touch, and in the spirit of sex and tech symposium Arse Elektronika, there is no denying a niche market for screens that not just emulate texture, but are sensitive to touch, exists. This bizarre digital intimacy app would be taken to the next level by ongoing research to digitally understand touch. That research is will be rolled out to prosthetic limbs and androids before it makes it to touch screens, but it’s not too far out to imagine screens that evoke a computational caress in the near future.
Remember I mentioned all the weird inventions that litter the ‘futuristic screens’ landscape. Here is one of the creepiest: a blood-powered, subdermal display implanted in your arm, which aspirant cyberpunks could install to have their screens permanently wedded to their body.