Our minds were well and truly blown by the PaperTab – a flexible paper-like e-ink tablet that can interact and share information with other PaperTabs wirelessly when brought into contact with them. Naturally, we had to track down the man behind the tech – Dr Roel Vertegaal, director of Queen's University's Human Media Lab, which collaborated on the flexible device with Intel and Plastic Logic. We caught up with him for for a chat about the future of flexible display technology – and what place the physical screen has in a world of Google Glasses.
Organic User Interfaces – the displays of the future
Dr. Vertegaal and his team at Human Media Lab study the interactions between humans and technology, with a focus on organic user interfaces. Organic UIs let you use the physical shape of a device to control it – in the PaperTab's case, that means you can bend the corners to change pages or even to fast forward and rewind through video. With a set of PaperTabs, you won't even need windows – each device can be used to display one single subject. It's a more intuitive, natural and universally understood way of getting tech to do your bidding.
"We've been living in a flat world with one dimension," Dr Vertegaal tells Stuff.tv. "Organic UIs bring with them the opportunity to turn any 3D product into an iPhone". He claims it's a revolution in industrial design – and it's certainly pretty exciting stuff.
"Just think," he says, "as opposed to having hundreds of apps on each device, each product could be its own app. Instead of seeing an augmented reality image layered, for example, over a can of Coke, I'd much rather see it on the can itself with no extra tech required. Of course iPhone-like devices will still exit, but I envision a future where newspapers, crisp packets and other everyday objects can offer information and interactivity completely independently".
The keyboard is here to stay
So what does all of this mean for tried and trusted tech like the keyboard and mouse? "We won't be getting rid of the keyboard," says Dr Vertegaal. "It's too efficient and too productive to be going anywhere soon."
He has bad news for mouse fans, though: "The mouse will definitely become a lot less prominent as organic user interfaces progress, and will be relegated to desks where raised monitors are the primary display."
But could something like the PaperTab become mainstream within the not-too-distant future?
The next ten years
"I can see this technology absolutely emerging within the next ten years," says Dr Vertegaal. "The biggest challenges lie in the flexibility of the circuit boards and processor, but solutions could be found in islands of chips spread out and connected by flexible ribbons." As for power, he adds, flexible batteries and thin film solar panels are already available. Dr Vertegaal also tells us that there are already folding display prototypes with near-seamless joints between two screens, with no pesky bezel to separate them.
Pipe dreams of 4in smartphones folding out into 10in tablets don't seem so far fetched now, do they? But remember, the PaperTab isn't the only contender for future human-technology interaction. There are also other challengers including the likes of the Tactus morphing keyboard and heavy hitters like...
Google's Project Glass
Flexible displays like the PaperTab will, according to Dr Vertegaal, compete with head-mounted displays like Google Glass – and Google's hi-tech specs will be especially useful for real-time notifications. "But if I'm looking at a piece of paper" he says, "then that's where I want to see the information. I don't want it virtually layered in front of my eyes". PaperTab, he reckons, offers a more natural, more physical way to interact with our gadgets.
Whether we're looking at the future through Google-coloured glasses or on a flexible display, we can't wait to get our hands on the next generation of user interfaces. Check out our feature on why touchscreens are only getting started for even more insight into what our hands will be grasping in the years to come.
Dr. Roel Vertegaal is the professor of human-computer interaction (HCI) at Queen's University school of computing in Kingston, Ontario and director of the Human Media Laboratory. Check out hml.queens.ca for more information on his team's exciting foray into the future of technology interaction.