It’s Not Just Science Fiction

It’s Not Just Science Fiction

by Stephen P. Atwood

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I’ve been a fan of science fiction stories and movies for most of my life.  I enjoy the idea of distant worlds and the way the limits of physics, chemistry, and biology are stretched far beyond what we know today.  Whether the stories take place on distance space stations like Babylon 5, with beings such as Vorlons, Narns, and Centauri, or on starships traveling through the planetary systems of Vulcan, Klingon, or Aldebaran, they all incorporate certain exaggerations of known science, such as traveling faster than the speed of light or near-instantaneous transformations of living tissue into any genetic code or condition required to make the story work.

Of course, we know today that many things that seemed like fantasy a generation ago, such as gene splicing and genetic engineering, are now serious research topics that are evolving into practical science.  It’s not quite so yet for faster-than-light space travel or telepathic communications, which will probably take at least a few more generations before they are realized.  However, in any of these aforementioned imaginary worlds, as well as the 2013 movie Ender’s Game(based on the novel by Orson Scott Card), computers always play a critical and pivotal role in supporting humans or aliens through their complex missions.  It’s hard to imagine a science-fiction story that does not have a computer or network of computers as part of its central premise.

In the ongoing quintet of books starting with Ender’s Game, computers provide vital communications, analysis, and control of practically all technology.  New life forms emerge within the circuits and webs of digital interconnections, one of them so powerful it can intercept and monitor all communications between all computers in the novels’ planetary system simultaneously and provide compassionate humanistic analysis of that information in real time.  This entity, named simply “Jane,” becomes a sentient person who battles alongside the main characters to save their world while at the same time solving the most complex mathematical problems ever considered in known history.  This is something even Apple has not yet been able to put into an iPhone app.

In many of these stories, however, the authors struggle and usually fail to represent the practical realities of interaction between the users of these complex machines and the computers themselves.  Where vast amounts of real-time information are available, the solution is usually to have the computer sort it all out and talk to the humans or aliens in their own spoken language.  Star Trek characters used a combination of spoken interrogations and display screens to get the information they needed.  These interactions were usually devoid of typical real-world clutter such as missing information, false conclusions, or mis-adjusted instruments.  Later embodiments of the Star Trek world did embrace holographics and handheld devices, but overall they never truly addressed the problem of real information management and transfer between people and machines.  In the Ender’s Game universe, we see computers that communicate with their users through holographic displays and two-way audio/video devices  – not unlike a Bluetooth earpiece and a pair of Google glasses.  These methods appear feasible, but, in fact, computer networks today can access and analyze vast amounts of data far faster than human beings can interpret and process that data.

As we move away from keyboards and into all manner of so-called “wearable” devices, we are only now beginning to deal with the challenges of advanced interactivity.  Having constant conversations with your devices and counting on them to interpret all the nuances of the problems to be solved is just not realistic at our present time.  Our eyes and ears can only absorb so much information so quickly, and we are increasingly being challenged by having too much available information and not enough human bandwidth to deal with it.  At the same time, the interactivity community is still in its infancy, developing techniques such as eye tracking and hand/body gesture interpretation to manage the flow of information in and out of our digital display devices.  One example is the recent demonstration of a rapidly evolving interactivity technology from Intel discussed in the media by Dr. Achin Bhowmik (  In this latest work, Bhowmik and his team have given tablets the ability to recognize complex body gestures, read facially expressed emotions, and render digital equivalents of the living world they see from their electronic eyes.  This and similar innovations will no doubt enable a new range of complex interactions between people and their computers that we have not yet fully imagined.

Before the iPhone came out, how many of you thought about using multiple finger gestures to access data on your screens?  Other than a few games, there were few practical examples of multi-touch interactions, and then overnight it all changed.  Consider a smartphone with a screen that is too small for all the data being presented.  If users cannot zoom and pan that imagery with gestures, the device is almost worthless.  It’s a complex dependency that exists between all the information available on our digital devices and their modes of interactivity.  One must keep pace with the other if wearable and portable computing trends are to truly integrate themselves into our lives.

There is no current answer to the problem of vast quantities of available information and limited human bandwidth with which to interpret it.  That’s a topic for another day.  I think what we are seeing is the beginning of an exciting and rapidly evolving field of interactivity science that will explode in the next decade in ways that so far only the best science- fiction writers have started to imagine.  The possibility of realizing virtual-reality interfaces and holographic interactive displays is getting closer, and when it arrives it will be better than anything that has been imagined.

By now you may have guessed that the themes of this issue include Touch and Interactivity as well as Tablets.  I’m really pleased to be able to offer it to you, thanks in large part to the efforts of our Guest Editor Bob Senior, who is well-known in our industry and a respected expert in the area of touch.

We begin with a discussion of digital pens in the Frontline Technology feature, “Technologies and Requirements for Digital Pens,” written by On Haran, research manager at N-trig.  The simple act of writing on a tablet computer is built on many layers of technology considerations, choices, and innovations that make up the intuitive experience we have come to expect.  Also on the topic of tablet computers, we welcome back author and technology analyst Ray Soneira to reveal his latest tablet test results in “Tablets Are Trending Better, Bigger, and Brighter.”  In a way, the real story behind this year’s latest offerings is that there is not a bad one in the field, but among all the great performers there are a number of important differences in the displays being used and we are grateful to Ray for educating us with his work.

There is another recent trend in front of us lately, that of finding a better transparent conducting material than indium-tin-oxide (ITO) to use in touch screens and similar applications.  We all know the 900-pound gorilla is ITO, and no one expects that to change in the immediate future, but we have all realized that ITO has limiting optical and electrical properties, especially for flexible backplanes.  Recent developments from several new entrants have produced some promising alternatives.  One such innovator is Canatu with the new material it calls Carbon Nanobuds.  As authors Anton S. Anisimov et al. describe in their Frontline Technology article, “Printed Touch Sensors Using Carbon NanoBud Material,” they developed a hybrid of carbon nanotubes and fullerenes in a special process that can achieve both high light transmission and high electrical conductivity at the same time – a balancing act that ITO cannot match.  If you are thinking this is a niche market application, please note that Touch Display Research forecasts that non-ITO transparent conductor market revenue will increase from $206 million in 2013 to $5 billion in 2020.  That’s a lot of revenue to be captured by one or a few of the leading developers for this technology in the next 6 years.

That data point I just referenced came directly from this month’s Display Marketplace feature written by Jennifer Colegrove and aptly titled, “New Trends in Touch.”  In her analysis, Jennifer expands on the marketplace for several critical topics in the touch-screen ecology, including ITO replacement materials, active pens, and “touchless” interactivity.  There is a lot of money going into touch and interactive technologies in the next few years and, as I said earlier, I think we have just started to think about this technology from a real human-experience point of view.

This month we have some other topics of interest to offer as well, including the third installment in our curved-display metrology series by author Ed Kelley.  In this Frontline Technology feature titled “Rendering of Detail in Televisions,” Ed looks at the various methods used by designers to render and enhance features and details in the leading-edge curved OLED and LED-backlit LCD TVs.  Along with his detailed analysis of measurements and methods, Ed proposes new metrics for “Sharpening” and “Color-Fade” that may soon become part of the next release of the ICDM.  On this and everything that Ed publishes, he welcomes your comments and ideas for his work, and we are sincerely grateful for the education he has given all of us in this field.

Next, we have a new installment in our Regional Business Review series this time looking at the tremendous growth of the display industry in Taiwan.  With a total GDP of nearly US $500 billion, this tiny island is home to a number of pivotal semiconductor and display manufacturers.  Our own Jenny Donelan tackles the tough questions about how this came to be and what drives this engine of growth and development in her contribution titled “Small Island, Big Business.”  From a seemingly unlikely start, the people of Taiwan have put hard work, education, and investment to work to build a bright future.

Finally this month, I have some sad news that many of you already know.  In April, we lost two giants of the display industry, men with a lifetime of achievements in the field of displays who will be sadly missed by many of us.  Bernie Lechner, a universally acknowledged expert in TV technology and a past SID president, was someone I admired from my earliest days at SID.  He played a critical role in the development of active-matrix LCDs as well as the creation of high-definition TV in the U.S.  Always approachable, always happy to teach, and always supportive, Bernie mentored many in this industry and it was a great privilege to attend one of his seminars or speak with him one-on-one.  I will always be grateful for what he taught me and how it helped my career.

George H. Heilmeier was a pioneer in liquid crystals who developed the first LCD that operated at or below room temperature.  Later in life he led several high-profile technology companies and received numerous prestigious recognitions for his ongoing work.  I did not have the privilege of knowing George personally, but everyone who has spoken to me about him has described his many great attributes, including his leadership and his dedication to mentoring.  He will certainly be missed by many in our great field.

With that, I wish you all a happy summer and hopefully a positive life-work balance.  Don’t forget the most important things are not the great displays and touch screens we all work on, but the people in our lives who support us and give us the ability to do what we do. •