The Unglowing

Retina displays march towards ubiquity, our computer interfaces are losing their skeuomorphic tendencies, custom web typography is ever more compatible—we live in an amazing world. My design process across printed materials, native UIs and websites has converged towards a unified design language that simply stretches horizontally and vertically to fit the physical dimensions of any given medium.

The pixel is very nearly dead.

If there’s one last rift between the analog and digital experience it’s the obnoxious glow we endure every day from the multitude of displays that surround us.

The 2010 e-ink Kindle that sits on my nightstand remains one of my favorite devices for its soft, comfortable reading experience and the 30-day battery life. It might sound like a first world problem, but as people add one more cable to their bedside and begin charging their Apple Watch every night, the idea of a device lasting 30 days seems more and more like the miracle of Hanukkah.

As an industrial designer first, I’ll go further and say that backlit displays will always anchor wearables to a rock called dorkdom. When display technology eventually matches the beauty of a printed color photograph, this moving paper will make the integration of hardware and software truly seamless, and we’ll have finally emerged from what still seems to me like an uncanny valley.

Products like the Electric Objects EO1 make it obvious that this new display type can’t come soon enough, even outside the world of wearables. We’ve accepted that displays glow, but they shouldn’t always need to.

What I worry about is whether we’ve hit an evolutionary dead end. LCDs are on a path towards inexorably cheaper prices at greater pixel densities, but they will never solve this challenge. Will it be Mirasol? Color e-ink? Something else? Who knows, but right now, there is no product category pushing us in that direction and it makes me wonder if the convergence of digital and print design will soon plateau.

Update: A couple days later, Amazon released its new e-ink Kindle Voyager, see The Unglowing, Continued.