Preparing for the dual/foldable screen step to our AR future

We are moving from single-screen devices to unlimited screen devices with some interesting intermediate steps, including foldable screens, head-mounted displays and even contact lenses.

Microsoft Surface Duo  >  A foldable Android mobile phone.
Microsoft

[Disclosure: Most of the vendors mentioned in this article are clients of the author.]

We are about to be up to our necks in dual screen products. We already have several foldable screen smartphones coming to, or already in, market from Samsung and Motorola. We have foldable notebooks coming to market. We have dual screen smartphones (LG) and PCs (Lenovo) in market. And products from Microsoft announced and due next year (the Surface Duo and Neo).

But all of these products are an intermediate step to using mixed reality to better deal with the need for more screen real estate.

Let’s talk about the path and problems to overcome as we move from a single screen world to one where the number of screens you can have up isn’t limited by what you can carry or put on a desk.

Getting dual/foldable screens right

The dual vs. foldable screen battle forces what I call an ugly choice. The foldable screen generally looks better at first because it doesn’t have the gap, but this generally forces a more expensive lower nit (screen brightness solution) technology than a dual-screen solution. Dual screens can use Gorilla Glass rather than plastic, so they’re generally on spec, cheaper, more robust and brighter (better for outdoor use)…but they have a significant gap between the screens that’s very distracting. That’s what I mean by an ugly choice between usability and cost, sturdiness and outdoor capability.

And if you look at the coverage, the foldable Samsung phone seems to be getting more positive reviews and interest than the similar dual-screen LG G8X phone – even though the Samsung phone costs $699 on Amazon (heavily discounted) and the Samsung Galaxy Fold phone is closer to $2,400. Oh, and the LG has the additional utility of being able to detach one screen to reduce the carry weight.

But the Samsung’s ability to become a small tablet appears to overcome the massive price, durability and flexibility of the LG design. For instance, for watching movies, on the Samsung fold, you get a bigger movie; on the LG, you get a smaller screen but are better able to multi-task on the second screen. This contrast showcases a level of preference for a large seamless display that’s pretty amazing, given the price difference between the products. Appearance appears to be significantly outshining value, practicality and flexibility.

A dual-screen phone with no border between the screens would be the ideal solution and it’s one I’ll bet Corning’s Gorilla Glass team is working furiously to address (the foldable screens use plastic and not hardened glass).

But we should remember that this is an intermediate step: The big move will be to mixed reality. And then everything changes.

Mixed reality

With mixed reality, we either place displays in front of the eye obscuring reality (VR) or allow reality to bleed through, allowing you to see around yourself for a less realistic virtual experience. Right now this, too, is an ugly trade-off.

For the best visual experience, you’d want VR. But with VR, since you can’t see the physical world around you, using it as a screen alternative is problematic unless you’re OK with not being able to see your hands and what’s going on around you. Unsurprisingly, most folks are not OK with this. With AR, you can see around you, but the display performance is significantly reduced.

Ideally, there should be an AR solution that more effectively blocks the light coming in from outside, but just where the virtual display exists so that the result performs as a monitor would. There’s one other problem, too: people generally don’t like to wear glasses. That’s a far harder problem to overcome and one the industry appears to be ignoring in the short term.

Recall 3D TVs. The issue wasn’t the experience. The issue was the glasses, and the fact that people don’t like to wear ‘em. It’s a prosthetics problem. And while the industry is working on contact lenses to do the same job, I expect getting people comfortable with putting tech in their eye will initially be problematic.

Progression to progress

We are moving from single-screen mobile products to more flexible, multi-screen solutions, but the evolution is going to go through some interesting hills and valleys. This move to unlimited screens will likely evolve from foldable plastic screens to seamless, foldable glass screens, then to mixed reality glasses that occlude the background, and finally to an embedded solution similar to contact lenses.

The gating factor for this progression will not only be limited by the technology but our willingness to put that technology on, or eventually in, our bodies. It should be an interesting ride, though…and we’ll have the early adopters to thank for finally getting there.

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