The elusiveness of digital paper

December 2019 · 2 minute read

Paper is still a place I go to think. While I rarely find the time to draw or paint these days, I am constantly thinking with a pen in my hand. The act of waving a writing tool puts my brain in a completely different mode than typing on a computer.

I’m scribbling notes, diagrams, doodles, UI ideas, letterforms and logotypes, all in rapid succession. At the office I’m known to fill up a wall-sized whiteboard in a couple minutes.

For years I’ve had a fascination with the idea of digital paper. It’s a concept that people have been working towards since the dawn of computing. Before the mouse was invented there was the aptly-named Stylator and the RAND Tablet.

Over time, we've gotten closer and closer to creating digital paper, which requires solving several problems:

  1. Resolution exceeding what the eye can see (200+ PPI)
  2. Instantaneous touch response (under 1 millisecond)
  3. High refresh rate (60Hz or above)
  4. Non-glowing, full color gamut, lit by ambient light
  5. Low power consumption, can operate for weeks without charging
  6. Thin, flexible, and ideally, foldable

We really do take for granted how magical paper and a good pen, pencil, or paintbrush can be. While we've made great progress, no display technology comes close to solving all these problems at once.

In particular, I'd like to dwell on my fantasy of a non-glowing display.

The look of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon was inspired by 18th century paintings

Shortly after the invention of the light bulb in the late 19th century, the first movie projectors came along. Movies were our first exposure to a medium for images and writing made of light. Up until then, from the first cave paintings, through stone tablets, papyrus, and the canvases of master painters, we interacted with writing and images on non-glowing materials.

Now we are accustomed to staring into rectangles of light for hours a day, and have been doing so for decades.

Imagine watching a movie like Barry Lyndon on a non-glowing subtractive color display. It would be like nothing you’ve ever seen before —  like watching a moving painting.

But science fiction movies tell a different story about the future of displays, a decidedly glowing future.

Neon and LED screens in Blade Runner, translucent HUD in Minority Report and holograms in Blade Runner 2049.

Our cyberpunk future is made of darkness and artificial light, but I'm not sure that's the only future I want.

In some ways I find the Apple Pencil more sci-fi than what the movies prophesize. It is wonderfully minimalistic: no diodes, no ports, no charger, not even a clip. The product is the interface. Everything about it creates the illusion that what you’re holding isn’t actually electronics  —  just a pencil. It's finally reaching the mythical sub-10 milisecond responsiveness that has been sought after for years, eliminating the sensation of lag, further disappearing into the illusion of digital paper.

E-ink is getting better, slowly, but it is so far away from the color gamut and refresh rate that we have with LCD and OLED.

If science fiction does drive progress, we are missing stories about naturalistic technologies like digital paper.

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