* Flexible, tactile screens in store for future
* Major breakthrough expected in artificial intelligence
By Poornima Gupta and Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO, July 15 Tablets with paper-thin
screens that can be folded and tucked into your back pocket,
artificial intelligence and augmented reality -- the stuff of
science fiction may be coming to a store near you.
It's been two years since Apple Inc launched the
iPad and spawned rival tablets from the likes of Samsung
Electronics Co, Amazon.com Inc, Sony Corp
, and now Google Inc and Microsoft Corp
Much of the competition so far has centered on making
smartphone and tablets lighter, slimmer, faster and
longer-running than their predecessors, and the trend shows no
signs of slowing. The increasingly crowded marketplace is also
galvanizing hardware designers and software engineers to explore
new technologies that may revolutionize the look and feel of
mobile devices in coming years.
"We should think beyond just the touch-screen device," said
Lin Zhong, a professor at Rice University who does research on
mobile systems. "Why do we have to hold tablets, carry many
displays? We should think about wearable computers."
Some researchers are experimenting with wearable devices,
such as Google Glass, a stamp-sized electronic screen mounted on
eyeglass frames to record video, access email and surf the Web.
Others, like Microsoft, are investigating the use of 3-D cameras
to create images that pop up when a person calls. Samsung has a
concept video that shows a bendable, transparent 3-D
smartphone-hybrid tablet that can also be used as a real-time
Few of these new technologies will hit store shelves any
time soon - companies and researchers are more actively working
on touchscreen innovations in the near term.
In particular, organic-light-emitting diodes, or OLED, is
widely touted as the successor to liquid crystal displays. OLED
displays, such as in Samsung's Galaxy Note smartphone, are
lighter, thinner and tougher than current displays.
The main attraction of OLED at first are their ruggedness,
but the technology could one day allow tablets to be folded or
rolled up like a newspaper. Reaching that point poses challenges
like making the delicate chips and components inside them more
flexible and resistant to damage.
"Flexible and foldable displays will first be implemented on
smaller sizes like smartphones," said Rhoda Alexander, IHS
iSuppli's tablet analyst. "Tablets may follow in a later
progression, once manufacturing costs and yields have been
An unfolding NewSSlate concept developed by
Innovation+Bermer Labs shows a foldable tablet that one can use
to read news and watch videos. These are not expected to be
ready for prime time for another few years.
NEXT UP: WRAPAROUND GLASS
Apart from experimenting with various materials in their own
labs, manufacturers are partnering with premier academic
institutions in their quest for the most interactive screens.
Samsung is working with Stanford University's chemical
engineering department, and Microsoft is working with Rice
Professor Zhenan Bao's team at Stanford has developed
stretchable, super-sensitive and solar-powered "electronic
skin," or sensors that can feel a touch as light as that of a
fly. One of its obvious applications is in touchscreens, and Bao
said the research has generated a lot of inquiries from
"Right now there is a lot of interest in having sensors in
the screen that can have pressure input for the touchscreen,"
Bao said. "Companies are also basically looking for replacement
material for the current silicon that is cheaper and compatible
with plastic substrate but has the same performance level."
Specialty glass company Corning Inc, famous for its
"gorilla glass" used in Apple devices, has an ultra-slim
flexible glass called "willow glass" that has the potential to
enable displays to be wrapped around a device. Corning said it
is currently shipping samples of willow glass, which is
compatible with OLED displays, to companies.
SIZE MATTERS, FOR NOW
Each new generation of tablets boasts big improvements in
pixel density and image quality, making photos, games and movies
more life-like. Manufacturers and software designers have made
less progress finding ways to let computers give physical,
tactile feedback -- but they're working on it.
The stakes are high as tablets become more and more
integrated with smartphones and other devices at home. Betting
on the right technology and features is imperative, since the
still-new category has already claimed many victims, including
Hewlett Packard's Touchpad tablet that was killed last year
after only a few months on the market.
With many companies entering the fray, vying to take share
away from Apple's iPad, those who get it right may end up
influencing the way people communicate and consume all media.
For now, size and price is where most manufacturers are
competing as they try to break the dominance of Apple in the
tablet market. Six out of 10 tablets sold are iPads.
"The big open area that is left to tackle is truly great
input," said Tony Fadell, co-founder and chief executive officer
of Nest Thermostat, who previously led the team at Apple that
created 18 generations of iPods and three generations of the
"There is tactile input as well as voice input. Those are
the two inputs that still need to be addressed in tablets,"
In a recent patent application related to tactile, or
haptic, technology, Apple in May outlined how features could be
added to a screen that would make it possible to alter the feel
of its surface.
Manufacturers are also working to improve gesture
recognition, augmented reality and voice controls like Apple's
IBM Fellow Bernie Meyerson expects major breakthroughs in
artificial intelligence in the next several years. He envisions
people having real, spoken conversations with their devices,
which will boast technology much more advanced than IBM's
Watson computer that defeated two champions on the
Jeopardy gameshow last year.
"You hand it to your grandmother and it just works. It will
adapt, tune itself to your voice," Meyerson said. "You'll have
something that you carry around in your pocket and it listens to
you when you want it to."
Laser projection keyboard devices that connect to mobile
devices by Bluetooth are already available, although some say
the technology is still buggy. In June, Microsoft unveiled its
Surface tablet, with a 10.6 inch display and a protective cover
that doubles as a keyboard.
Other new and upcoming improvements in tablet hardware are
seen as attractive but less important differentiators. At an
industry event in Madrid earlier this year, manufacturers dunked
tablets and smartphones in aquariums to show off new waterproof
Intel Corp recently showed off "ultrabook" laptops
with screens that swivel from their keyboards or detach
completely to act as tablets.