Wind in your face, plus 3-D

Plugged In

August 23, 2007|By Cox News Service

We've come a long way from the hulking putty-colored computer monitors that used to dominate our desks.

But when it comes to the future of video displays, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Along with making tomorrow's monitors even wider and thinner, some technology companies are adding touch-screen and other "sensing" features into them.

Others are developing displays that come in new sizes and shapes, from flexible screens you can unroll on a business trip to curved monitors that increase the field of vision for gamers and others.

Still others are working on monitors with far-out features like 3-D viewing, reflective displays that use sunlight or lamps to cut down on battery consumption, even sensor-driven "wind" screens that can blow breezes as users blast through a video game or run through a virtual world.

What's driving the innovations in the $100 billion display industry are the changing ways that people are using their computers and TVs, said Kurt Scherf, vice president of Dallas technology research group Parks Associates.

"Computers have obviously moved well beyond simple information devices and have now become depositories for multimedia applications like photos and videos," Scherf said. "So it makes sense that we're going to see different types of displays that take into account the way end users want to interact with them."

Microsoft Corp. is working on one of the most interesting concepts.

The newest technology from the world's biggest software company isn't exactly a monitor, but a new kind of display system built around a PC.

Microsoft's Surface computer looks a little like an old Pac-Man video game table. But it's actually a full-fledged, Internet-connected computer with a huge horizontal monitor.

Microsoft's Surface table senses when portable devices like media players or cell phones come in contact with it, and can automatically transfer photos, contact lists or other data information to its oversized screen. Users tap the touch-screen to organize their photos or access the Internet. They can order and pay for a drink in a bar by simply placing a credit card on the screen.

Initially, Microsoft is targeting hotels and restaurants for the $5,000 to $10,000 device, but it's planning cheaper versions for home users and others.

"[Microsoft founder]Bill [Gates] had a vision 30 years ago ... that there would be a computer on every desk," said Mark Bolger, a company spokesman. "Now our vision is that every desk can be a computer - not only every desk, but every surface."

Others are taking smaller steps forward.

Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced its $1,800 TouchSmart computer in January. Sales have been going "extremely well," said product manager Garrett Gargan.

TouchSmart is designed for kitchens and other home settings. Parents and kids can use a finger and the touch-screen monitor to write messages, check family calendars or view family pictures without worrying about spilling milk on a keyboard.

HP is developing other types of monitors too, including ones with curved screens and multiple projectors that greatly improve the field of vision.

"For things like applications where you're trying to simulate the real world, a little computer monitor that only fills 30 degrees of your field of view just doesn't cut it anymore," said HP Labs project manager W. Bruce Culbertson.

Another nontraditional screen, Qualcomm's IMOD display, reflects light rather than transmitting it. External light from the sun or lamps makes the screens come alive, saving battery life but also making them easier to see in bright daylight. Qualcomm expects to sell the displays initially to makers of cell phones, music players and other devices, but eventually they could also end up in laptop monitors or large exterior displays.

In another twist, flexible displays from companies such as LG. Philips LCD Co. Ltd. could someday let you hang your monitor on a wall like a poster and roll it up and take it with you when you leave.

For most users, the standard everyday monitor is probably plenty good enough, says Barry Young, an analyst with Austin, Texas-based research firm DisplaySearch.

There's a limited market for products like Microsoft's and HP's, Young said. The market is even more limited for technologies like flexible or 3-D screens.

Of course not long ago, few foresaw the need for anything other than a monochrome monitor, but then games and graphing software spurred the movement to color screens.

New look of monitors

Some of the monitor and display innovations tech companies are working on:

NEW FORMS

Curved screens such as those being developed by Hewlett-Packard Co. and others promise to give users a wider field of vision.

NEW FLEXIBILITY

Flexible displays from companies like LG Philips could someday let you hang your monitor on a wall like a poster and roll it up and take it with you when you leave. Cell phone pioneer Qualcomm Inc., meanwhile, is developing "reflective" displays that can be used in bright sunlight and also help reduce battery consumption.

NEW FUNCTIONS

Microsoft Corp.'s Surface computer uses cameras and chips from Texas Instruments Inc. that sense and interact with portable devices such as cell phones or hand-held computers, as well as credit and debt cards. Users can display and manipulate photos on the oversized touch screen, go online, or order and pay for food.

NEW FEATURES

Several companies have recently introduced 3-D screens, although mainstream 3-D software applications today are rare. Researchers at Japan's Inami Laboratory have developed a monitor that can blow wind using sensors and air compressors.

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