The evolution (and eventual end) of computer monitors

For 40 years or so, we've used computer monitors to work with our desktops and laptops. But as as head-mounted displays advance, how we see the online world is going to change.

futuristic user interface - heads-up display
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(Disclosure: All of the vendors mentioned are clients of the author.)

I met this week with Stefan Engel, Lenovo’s vice president and general manager of visuals business, and we chatted about where monitors are — and where they are going. That prompted me to reflect on why monitors are likely headed toward obsolescence by the end of the decade, and the different approaches Dell, HP, and Lenovo are taking now. 

Let me start with that last point first. 

Dell, HP, and Lenovo march to different monitor drummers

When it comes to setting up a monitor, most users are also interested in speakers and a webcam — especially in the video-centric world in which we now work. Dell views it monitors as entirely separate items; cameras and speakers (with some exceptions) are usually separate, although Dell does tend to support charging and accessory connections, turning them into USB hubs.

HP generally prefers to build its speakers and cameras into its monitors. This approach leads to a cleaner desktop, because you only have to worry about one cable and the result looks less like something assembled from parts created by different designers. (You can also flip down the camera, switching it off for full privacy; employees are often concerned that managers are spying on them, and cameras have been compromised in the past.)

Lenovo generally slots in between Dell and HP, or will over time. It provides a USB port on top of the monitor for either a camera or camera/speaker. This looks more elegant than Dell’s setup and provides more flexibility than HP’s, but locks you into a Lenovo camera and speaker. Still, it allows for accessory upgrades down the road if Lenovo produces specialized cameras and speakers for its monitors. 

The Dell approach provides the most flexibility, HP’s offers the cleanest look, and Lenovo delivers a decent blend of the two concepts. 

The coming evolution

Professional and consumer monitors are diverging, and that divergence is about to accelerate. For those primarily using a monitor for work at home or in the office, LCD screens are giving way to mini-LCD monitors with higher resolutions. OLED monitors are coming, but because of the risk of burn-in and the tendency to use static images for work, OLED isn’t prominent on the commercial side. Consumers want OLED for its deep blacks and bright colors, but for business users, static images can cause this expensive technology to fail prematurely. Until that burn-in problem is addressed, they are unlikely to be very popular for enterprises.

USB hub technology has been embraced by all the major vendors and will likely be enhanced over time as USB technology advances.  The same is true for screen resolution: for monitor buyers moving from LCD to mini-LCD, the expected upgrade path includes 4K displays. Currently there doesn’t appear to be much demand for 8K displays (outside of some niches on the engineering and movie animation side), but that could change as commercial 4K become more prevalent, likely after 2025. 

The end of monitors as we know them

The next major step for monitors will be head-mounted displays. Dell is largely sitting this trend out for now, HP has a nice, well-priced commercial VR headset, and Lenovo has the first head-mounted monitor from a major OEM. (It also offers the first Hololens competitor  from a major OEM.) As I was writing, the first Smart AR contact lenses entered testing, as well. 

Once head-mounted displays mature (allowing occlusion as needed and resolutions that deliver a 4K experience), the need for traditional monitors is likely to drop off a cliff. With monitors, you’re limited by the size of the monitor. To fill your entire field of vision, you need a very big one or you have to sit very close to a higher resolution, smaller monitor. A head-mounted display, since it can fill your field of view, provides nearly unlimited virtual monitor space.

In addition, with head-mounted displays, you can get to extreme virtual sizes for mobile workers and even do things like provide Heads Up capabilities when walking or riding a scooter or bike.  I can also imagine a future where the displays in cars are replaced by a head-mounted display where you can configure your virtual dash anyway you like. And then, when the car is being driven autonomously, you can switch from real world to gaming or movies for entertainment. All you’d have to do is darken the windows, which is far cheaper than turning them into displays. 

Out with the old, in with the new

Monitors are approaching the end of their run, though they still represent the best way to visually interact with computers. The consumer and professional markets may be diverging, but not for hybrid work where the same features are valued at both home and in the office. Consumers will eventually get OLED options and faster refresh speeds for gaming, while the push for high-resolution 8K devices will likely stall due to the lack of compelling 8K content. 

Eventually, monitors will evolve into head-mounted displays and things like AR contact lenses will mature to become truly viable alternatives. I expect we’ll be seeing the online world in a whole new way by the end of the decade. 

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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