Flex appeal

Flex appeal

Queen’s Human Media Lab’s PaperTab technology has the world talking
December 11, 2013

It seems so retro. Our future tablets will be designed to act more like paper: We’ll fold them, roll them up, maybe even stuff them into our back pockets. The innovative thinkers at Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab, which focuses on finding new ways of working with computers, were honoured at the World Technology Awards in New York City in November for their PaperTab technology, a series of paper-thin, flexible computer displays that can interact with your gestures and with one another.

Picture this: instead of that clunky monitor sitting on your desk, cluttered with half a dozen open windows all competing for space, you may soon find yourself spreading out an array of touch-screen PaperTab displays. Suddenly, you’ll be able to see everything at once — and move content between the displays. If you need to work on a large and complicated image — an architectural drawing, for example — you’ll simply place two PaperTab displays next to each other, and the plan will expand across both, creating a larger image that allows for more detail.

Researchers at the Human Media Lab, who collaborated on the project with Plastic Logic (a U.K. company that specializes in plastic electronics) and Intel Labs, are confident that within a decade, PaperTab displays will replace most of the desktop, tablet and notebook computers we’re using today. “There are so many positives to this technology,” explains Roel Vertegaal, who heads up the lab. “The displays are cheaper to make; they’re virtually indestructible; and they’re very lightweight. And if you have a lightweight, flexible display, you might as well have several of them — that’s why paper works so well for multi-tasking.” Come to think of it, having just one screen does suddenly feel a little limiting.

Flexible calling plans

Even as the Human Media Lab is receiving accolades for the PaperTab flexible computer, tech watchers are buying up the first smartphones with concave displays. “We’re now slowly getting to the point where major corporations are using technology that we began working on nine years ago,” says Vertegaal. Queen’s researchers have been involved in developing hardware and interaction techniques for curved displays since 2004. Vertegaal believes that the decision by LG and Samsung to invest in mass-producing these curved, though still rigid, screens opens the door for many more types of flexible-screen applications in the near future. At the Human Media Lab, Vertegaal and his team are hard at work perfecting MorePhone, a smartphone that is unique for being bendable, with embedded shape-memory alloy wires that contract, allowing the phone to morph its shape to give users visual cues of incoming phone calls, text messages or emails.

Flexible worlds

While much of the Human Media Lab’s experimentation with non-flat displays is in the prototype stage, visitors to Singapore can get a dramatic real-world illustration of the lab’s work by visiting the SingTel mobile phone flagship store. There, Human Media Lab researchers teamed up with England’s Pufferfish, a company that specializes in spherical display screens, to develop a multi-touch globe. Visitors are invited to “see the world” by selecting a city on the digital globe, which then “flies” them there via a 14-metre-long concave high-definition screen that responds to hand commands, allowing visitors to zoom in and out as they hover above the city.

Main image photo credit: Human Media Lab