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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Paper

I have a piece of paper on my desk, and it is white, 8.5" by 11", letter size. I have a pen in my hand, and I draw on the paper in clean crisp lines. Oops, that line was wrong, so I can zoom in within the paper, using a reverse-pinch, and correct the line using more pen strokes. I can dropper white or black from the paper to draw in white or black for correction.

But, if I really don't like that line, I can undo it and try again. All on what appears to be a regular piece of paper!

Wait, this is just like a paint app on an iPad!

Yes, this is how paper will be in the future: just a plain piece of paper. Plus.

The drawing can be finished and cleaned up and then saved using an extremely simple interface. Touching the paper with my finger brings up this interface. Touching the paper with the pen allows me to draw.

When I bring up the interface, I can save the drawing. Into the cloud.

Smaller and Smaller

How did this come to be? Simple: miniaturization.


I think the computer concept, stemming from WW II and afterwards, is the transformative concept of our lifetimes. The web, though amazingly useful, is just an offshoot of computing; it's a natural consequence. We have seen computers go from house-sized monstrosities during the war to room-sized beasts during the 50s and 60s to refrigerator-sized cabinets with front-panel switch-based consoles in the 70s to TV-sized personal computers in the 80s to portable laptops in the 90s to handheld items in the 2000s to wearable items in the 2010s.

It's perfectly clear to me where this is going.

Computers are going to be embedded in everyday objects in our lifetime. When I was born, computers were room-sized and required punched cards to communicate with them. When I die, computers will be embedded in everything and will require but a word or a touch to make them do what we require.

Gadgetizing Ordinary Objects

In the future, the world I live in has objects with their own ability to compute, like modern gadgets, but they are impossibly thin, apparently lacking a power source, and can transmit and receive effortlessly through the ether into the cloud. So, let's summarize what they need in order to be a full-functioning gadget:
  1. computation - a processor or a distributed system of computation
  2. imaging - the ability to change its appearance, at least on the surface
  3. sensing - the ability to respond to touch, light, sound, movement, location
  4. transmission/reception - the ability to communicate with the Internet
  5. storage - the ability to maintain local data
  6. power - perhaps the tiny size means the light shining on the object will be enough to power it
You know what? I don't need as many pieces of paper as I used to. This saves trees, which grow outside all over because we are no longer chopping them down except to control overgrowth. Even paper used to wrap boxes rarely exists, because the outsides of boxes also act this way.

The same paper can be used to read the local new feed or to check the weather. But, unlike a newspaper, it is updated in real time. I can even look at the satellite image.

It becomes clear that the "internet of things" is necessary to make this vision happen.

Yet To Do

It's amazing to think so, but most of this magic already works on an iPad. The only conceptual leaps that need to be made are these:
  1. the display becomes a microscopically-thin layer, reflecting light rather than producing it
  2. the computation, sensing, transmission, and reception must use organic, paper-thin processors
  3. touch interfaces must learn to discern between fingers and pen-points
  4. the paper powers itself, using capacitance or perhaps with a paper-thin power source
In 1, like existing eInk and ePaper solutions used in eBooks, power is only used to change the inherent color of a spot on the paper. Normally, power doesn't get used at all when the display is stable and unchanging. In 2, the smaller they processors are, the less power they will use. We can already envision computation at the atomic level, and also in quantum computers. In 4, maybe the light you see the paper with can power the device (a fraction of the light gets absorbed by the paper, particularly where you have drawn black).

Why Change People When We Can Change Objects

Now go through this scenario with any object you are familiar with. Why couldn't it be done using computing, imaging, sensing, transmission, storage, power, etc. ?

Things like undo, automatic save and recall, global communication, and information retrieval become the magic that is added to real-world objects. It's like a do-what-I-mean world.

But what might be different from a current iPad? Turning your image. Imagine turning your image using current applications like Painter. You can turn it using space-option to adjust the angle of the paper you are drawing onto so your pen strokes can be at ergonomic angles.

But with a paper computing device, you just turn the paper!

The ergonomics of paper use are exactly like those of existing paper, which solves some problems right off the bat.

Also imagine that you lay the paper on something and it can copy exactly what is underneath it. It's like a chameleon.

So objects like paper become more useful in the future. And we are just the same people, but we are enabled to be do so much more than we can do now. And the problems of ergonomics can be solved in the way they have already been solved: with the objects we use in everyday life.

Any solution that doesn't require the human being to change can be accepted. The easier it is, the more likely it will be accepted. The closer to the way it's already done in a non-technological way, the more likely it is that anybody can use it.

Solutions that do require the human to change, like implants, connectors, ways to "jack into" the matrix seem to me to lead to a very dystopian future. But remember there are those who are disabled and who will probably need a better way to communicate, touch, talk, hear, or see.

Hmm. I Never Thought Of That!

Cameras are interesting to make into a paper-thin format. Maybe there are some physics limitations that make this unlikely. When eyes get small, they become like fly's eyes. Perhaps some answer is to be found in mimicking that technology.

Low-power transmission is a real unknown. There may be a massive problem with not having enough power unless some resonance-based ultra-low-power transmission trick gets discovered. Perhaps there are enough devices nearby that only low-power transmission needs to be done. Maybe the desk can sense the paper, or the clipboard has a good transceiver.

And if (a fraction of) the light being used to view the device is not enough to power it? Hmm. Let's take a step back. How much power is really needed to change the state of the paper at a spot? Perhaps less power than is needed to deposit plenty of graphite atoms on the surface: the friction of contact may supply enough energy to operate the paper device. There are plenty of other sources of energy: piezoelectrics from movement, torsion, and tip pressure on the paper, heat from your hand, inductive power, the magnetic field of the earth, etc.

Still, I think that computing is becoming ubiquitous, and that one of the inevitable products of this in the future is the gadgetization of everyday objects.

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