The Screen Has Arrived

Apple’s iPad shows that screens technology has become dominant

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For those of you living under a rock, Apple released its newest gadget, the iPad, earlier this month. Like most Apple launches of the 21st century, the product has generated a thousand articles in the mainstream press and a thousand and one different opinions. So far, the iPad has been maligned as a sinister threat to creativity, praised as an agent of convenience, and enshrined as a brilliant business plan because it doesn’t threaten Apple’s market share in either laptops or phones. Rather than any of these things, however, the iPad should be recognized as the first product that makes the screen its central focus.

Whereas a regular laptop is a computer that happens to have a screen attached, the iPad is a sophisticated touchscreen that just happens to have a computer behind it. In most laptops, peripherals such as audio and display are subservient to the microprocessor and the central motherboard. By contrast, the iPad’s most expensive components are its display and the touchscreen. Apple’s design philosophy has shaped the iPad into a device with the principal goal of presenting media as simply as possible. Users don’t have to deal with customization, file structures, or installation. The screen, like a window into the world of data, is all you need.

The screen has come a long way to reach its status as a stand-alone device, and it has seen many permutations along the way. For instance, while we take for granted that a screen displays images as grids of pixels, many early computers used oscilloscopes to produce vector graphics, composed of lines and simple shapes, rather than a two-dimensional raster. One of the first videogames, SPACEWAR!, used an oscilloscope to draw its vector graphics in 1962. The popular arcade game Battlezone (1980) used vector graphics to draw a three-dimensional wireframe display, and vector graphics can be still seen today in laser light shows.

However, raster-based graphics, such as the Cathode Ray Tube technology used for TV screens, became the dominant style of computer monitors by the 1980s. They used an electron gun positioned by magnetic fields to scan the front of the tube. Colors were generated with three different guns—one for each primary color—at varying intensities across the screen. But CRTs required a large, deep glass envelope, making them bulky and hard to transport. It took the ability to cheaply develop flat-panel displays—from LCDs in digital clocks to plasma display TVs—to take screens out of the home or office and into the world at large.

Though the iPad represents a watershed moment for the screen, display technology continues to grow and change. While screens are bound to spread further in the near future, it will be hard to predict which features will be emphasized. For years, the best screens had the highest resolution—that is, they crammed the most pixels into every square inch. But despite the popularity of successively larger resolutions in home entertainment, as seen by the success of Blu-Ray disks, resolution isn’t everything. The iPad, which has a larger screen, actually has a lower resolution than the iPhone. Moreover, many people don’t mind the blocky, highly compressed videos off of YouTube, so low resolution is perfectly adequate for viewing short video clips. And the surprising success of Amazon’s e-reader Kindle suggests that for some screen-centric devices, you don’t even need color to woo consumers.

In addition, it is still unclear whether touchscreens will replace more conventional input devices. For applications where precision is critical, a mouse will win out over a touchscreen, no matter how small someone’s fingers are. Even when accuracy isn’t crucial, the finer control a mouse can provide helps users perform actions more quickly, which translates into greater productivity. However, future generations of touchscreens and applications designed to run on them will likely use artificial intelligence to decipher a user’s intentions, which means even users with fat, stubby fingers won’t need a mouse to click on hyperlinks.

Another feature that devices like mouses, keyboards and game controllers have over touchscreens is that their buttons provide tactile and aural feedback to users, though that advantage is quickly eroding. The newest generation of phones uses screens that move back and forth with a motor in response to user input, and future iterations will use piezoelectric elements to trick our fingers into thinking they are interacting with a real keyboard.

More recent areas of screen research point to even more outlandish uses. Organic LEDs, which have been made into televisions in the past few years, use organic materials to emit without a backlight, and they can be printed onto paper or even fabric. Other research into electronic paper has produced flexible screens that can be rolled up into a scroll. Even as screens become more and more ubiquitous, the very definition of what constitutes a screen is changing. Hopefully the screens of tomorrow will inspire us to be more creative, or at least bring us media that teaches and moves us. If nothing else, the future will be full of shiny, animated objects waiting for us to interact with them.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.