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Future Portable Displays

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Jef Raskin, inventor of the Apple Macintosh and author of The Humane Interface (Addison-Wesley, 2000) talks about much-needed improvements for portable computer displays.
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When there's a discussion of interfaces, it often centers not on interfaces, but on new peripherals. For example, someone might say, "If only I could just talk to the computer…" This begs the question. What you say to make it do what you need it to do, and how it delivers its responses, together make up the interface.

We do have some voice-response systems, and we hate them: Say "yes" if you'd like to hear this article in Sanskrit.

Voice input is a bit player in interface issues. The real interface question is this: What do you need to do and what's the best way of getting the system to do it? It's a software and mindware issue—mostly. And while we all complain about keyboards, the sad fact is that—for the time being—there's nothing that's as accurate and fast. I'm sorry to say that the QWERTY layout is here to stay for a long while. But there is one hardware annoyance that we can do something about. It can be done soon, and without requiring any retraining: improve displays, especially those on portable equipment.

Portable computer displays are a nuisance. Aside from a lack of privacy, you can barely use them in economy seats on airplanes because there's no room to tilt the display back. They are delicate, expensive, heavy, and power hogs (the backlight alone takes up gobs of battery energy). Displays the size of those on portable computers have adequate size for their resolution, but they are too large to fit on PDAs and our growing collection of pocketable hardware.

There is an easy solution to all this, and it is nearly here: discreet eyeglass-mounted displays. I am not speaking about those monstrous head-mounted units that flamboyant nerds wear to announce their assimilation into the Borg, but an inconspicuous attachment that goes almost unnoticed on your eyeglasses or sunglasses—or just plain frames if your eyes are 20/20.

Just as it was once considered geeky to have a cell phone on your belt but is now accepted as a part of standard male business apparel, having an elegant, gold-framed, eyeglass-mounted projector will become a fashion statement for both sexes. Tech fashion is already here: A kid-leather Palm Pilot case is part of the quiet, distinguished look; a titanium case is just the thing for the power-hungry executive—it goes along with your classic stainless steel DeLorean. And think of the advantages of always having a teleprompter at hand when you're giving that presentation to the board. Every fact and figure you need right in front of your eyes.

If it's done right, the eyeglass display will plug into whatever gadget you have, giving at least 600 * 800 pixels of screen resolution to the smallest cell phone (displays with built-in cell phones will be common). The present trend to make emasculated Web sites for access by small-screen devices will be short-lived as visually large displays become available on small gadgets.

Amazing things will happen when you combine a display you almost always wear with high-speed wireless downlinks; what you're watching just might be a movie on demand. A second output jack on some models will allow your friend to share Jackie Chan jumping from an airplane high in the air without a parachute, only to land in a Judo roll on the roof of the tallest building in Hong Kong.

If you haven't tried one on yet, you might think that using a head-mounted display is like squinting into a microscope eyepiece, with its limited and narrow view. Wrong. The best of them look like a five-foot wide screen floating a few yards in front of you. With earphones and ear-canal mikes or throat mikes (so that you can talk without being readily heard except electronically), your head can be in your own e-world wherever your body is physically. I'm not sure that this is a good idea, but like it or not, it's happening.

Use while driving might well be prohibited, although a clever application would allow you to plug the head-mounted display into the car to get your speed, warning lights, and current radio station projected on the world in front of you, just like modern aircraft heads-up displays. Lawyers will make their living arguing about this, and having "a glassy stare" will take on a new meaning.

Right now, head-mounted displays are expensive, but they will ultimately become cheaper than LCD panels. There's a lot less material, for one thing. This will lower the price of computer technology yet again (or, to be realistic, allow the manufacturers to keep the price the same even though the overall system complexity increases). In fact, head-mounted displays will be cheap enough to be used in game systems. For games, and some other applications as well, a head-position sensor built into the display will give you look-around ability just by turning your head. Virtual reality in your pocket! Multiple-player games will give each participant their own view. In coordination with a GPS unit, it can project the addresses of buildings on your real-world view of them—even tell you what companies are in what offices, or give you the menu of a restaurant across the street.

Future portable computers will look like tiny keyboards or writing tablets with a cable or a wireless link to your eyeglasses. Though it would seem inevitable, not all versions of the glasses will connect to the computer or car or whatever by a wireless link. You'd certainly want that; plugs and sockets are so 20th century, after all. Unfortunately, batteries are still big and heavy, and will be for a while yet, so we'll have to have some wires leading to battery packs, and once you've got a wire to the battery on your belt, you might as well have a nice, reliable, and cheap (never forget cheap) wire link to your eyeballs. Because the illumination can come from a single white light-emitting diode that takes a fraction of a watt to operate, lithium-ion or lithium-polymer batteries on your belt or in the keyboard unit will allow you to work for many more hours on a single charge than today's big screens permit.

The possibilities are dizzying; for example, with two of these units on your glasses, everything can be in 3D. So let's give a cheer, raise our glasses to our eyes, and drink in the sweetness of lightweight, inexpensive, low-power visuals.

About the Author

Jef Raskin is a user interface and system design consultant based in Pacifica, California. He is the author of The Humane Interface (Addison-Wesley 2000), the inventor of the Apple Macintosh and the Canon Cat computers, and was the CEO of Information Appliance, Inc. His clients range from startups to multinationals and government agencies, including NASA, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Motorola, NCR, Xerox, Ricoh, Canon, McKesson, Intel, and AT&T. Raskin's publications number over 500 articles in some 40 periodicals, including Wired, Forbes ASAP, IEEE Spectrum, IEEE Computer, Nature, Quantum, newspapers, Innovations, and Communications of the ACM. Raskin has taught computer science at the University of California, Stanford University, and elsewhere and was the conductor and music director of the San Francisco Chamber Opera Company.

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