Since a piece of paper is the ultimate interface that we humans are most comfortable with, it will only be a matter of time that the computer screen, or even the computer itself, will be nothing more than an ultra-thin sheet that can be folded, rolled, or crumpled into a ball if one so desires. This inclination to make thinner products is already evident in the world of digital electronics where "thin is in," as flexible OLED screens are being used in the latest generation of smart phones and TVs to hit the market.
As digital devices are pushed to their two dimensional limits, imagine the digital blueprint of the future, which would be the ultimate computer interface. A large-scale portable display that would be less cumbersome than a laptop, but larger than a tablet, and allow users to manipulate and edit 3D objects on the go. Manufacturers, home builders and design agencies would greatly benefit from such technology, allowing engineers, construction workers, and architects to make plan adjustments at any location for immediate client approval. Adding 3D print functionality would make such a flat, folding computer all the better by using touchscreen functionality to select the 3D object represented and have it sent to the nearest 3D printer to be manufactured.
Such is concept is already being born at The Human Media Lab (HML) at Queen's University in Toronto. The initial prototype is called Paperfold and is being developed by Queen's professor Roel Vertegaal and student Antonio Gomes. Paperfold is a groundbreaking multi-screen smartphone that consists of three flexible electrophoretic displays to provide extra screen real estate when needed. Electrophoretic displays, or electronic paper, are display technologies which are very thin and designed to mimic ink on paper. The electronic displays are connected via magnetic hinges and are detachable allowing users to fold the device into various shapes that can range from an ultra notebook shape to a foldout map.
"In PaperFold, each display tile can act independently or as part of a single system," says Dr. Vertegaal. "It allows multiple device form factors, providing support for mobile tasks that require large screen real estate or keyboards on demand, while retaining an ultra-compact, ultra-thin and lightweight form factor."
The graphics displayed on Paperfold can change based on how the screens are folded. For example, folding the device into an ultra notebook form factor opens up a keyboard on the bottom screen. Users could use this form factor to type a search for an address on Google Maps which would then be displayed on the top screen.
When viewing a Google map with Paperfold, users can zoom in to their location by folding the three screens inward. Completely folding the screens together transforms the map into the three dimensional representation of the users final destination, which can then be sent to a 3D printer by touching the image on the screen.
The advantage that Paperfold has over smart phones, tablets, and laptops is scalability.
Smart phones and tablets are great for small maps when you need GPS, but when you need to show a client "the big picture" i.e. the whole floor plan, or complex mechanical renderings, large blueprints are the best way to go. By connecting more displays of various sizes together one can only imagine how Paperfold could become the digital blueprint of the future. Design professionals who customarily use large blueprints to explain complex mechanical structures would be greatly benefitted by such a device. Conceivably, Paperfold version 2.0 would allow designers to explore design variations, embed metadata into their designs, and delve into layered details while enabling them to 3D print parts from any location they desire – and all from the same digital blueprint. But alas, since the first version of Paperfold is still a prototype this uber digital blueprint we all envision is another great idea waiting to happen.