The elusiveness of digital paper

· 2 minute read

For years I’ve had a fascination with the idea of digital paper. I’m not alone. People have been drawn to this idea since early devices like the Stylator (1957) and RAND Tablet (1964).

Over the decades we have inched towards creating digital paper, but what I find surprising is that the digital paper I imagine is rarely seen in science fiction.

These are specs I dream of:

  1. Resolution that exceeds discernible pixels (200+ PPI)
  2. Instantaneous touch response (under 1 millisecond)
  3. High refresh rate (60Hz or above)
  4. Non-glowing, full color gamut, at its highest contrast in reflected light
  5. Low power consumption, can operate for weeks without charge
  6. Thin, flexible, and ideally, foldable

We take for granted how magical paper and a pencil or paintbrush can be. While there has been great progress, no technology comes close to replicating that experience.

We have become accustomed to staring into rectangles of light for days on end. Decades on end. We seem to forget about the beauty of unglowing media.

Shortly after the invention of the light bulb, projectors appeared. This was our first exposure to glowing images and writing made of light. Until then, we interacted with writing and images solely on non-glowing substrates — from cave drawings, to stone tablets, papyrus, and painted canvases.

Oil paint and ambient light reflecting on canvas produces a feeling no glowing screen can replicate. Stanley Kubrick tried his best to evoke this feeling in Barry Lyndon.

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

…but imagine watching Barry Lyndon on a non-glowing subtractive color digital paper display. It would be like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  Like a moving painting.

On the other hand, science fiction tells a different story about the future. A decidedly glowing future, made of darkness, artificial light, neon, and holograms.

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

While there is an ethereal appeal to holograms, they feel so distant from the world around us — particularly the daytime world. These images are always presented in a dark atmosphere where things can glow. We should also build technology for the daytime, the outdoors, the sun.

I find the Apple Pencil more sci-fi than what cyberpunk prophesizes. 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 is  just a pencil. It’s reaching the mythical sub-10 millisecond responsiveness that reinforces the illusion of digital paper. I’d like to see more hardware move in this direction.

If science fiction drives progress, we are missing stories about technologies that feel as natural as a paper and a pencil.