By the end of next year, we should have at least one multi-screen notebook computer from every major PC vendor. Part of what these vendors will be exploring is whether to use the multiple screens to go small or go large. I think this is an interim step until we figure out head-mounted displays, shift the PC load to the cloud, and get far more comfortable with voice input.
Let’s talk about the coming wave of dual-screen laptops this week.
Going Small vs. Going Large
The most common way we get to multiple screens today is with a USB-C screen accessory for our existing notebook. One of the best implementations is from Lenovo as they have both an ultra-thin and light notebook in their ThinkPad X1 Carbon and a portable screen in their ThinkVision M14. I’ve been using both products for several days now, and the combination is brilliant. I’ve developed a nasty habit of avoiding writing when I travel because I go into withdraws when I lose the 49” Dell monitor I have on my desk. The thing is awesome, and size in monitors does matter so much so that the 13”-15” screens on the laptops I carry are pathetically inadequate as a result. Sadly carrying a 49” monitor onto a plane is problematic (though it might be fun to see the faces of the TSA folks if I ever tried this)
Now I tend to think that a foldable laptop should try to solve this same problem more elegantly, but the few attempts at doing large laptops with a second screen haven’t sold well. I’d argue it is because the implementation sucked, but that pushed the OEMs in the opposite direction, and products like the Surface Neo instead of opening to two 14” screens fold down into a tablet size.
This move makes the result far more useful for those that carry purses because this smaller size fits but, for those of us without purses, the result only makes a smaller laptop more viable it doesn’t address the screen real estate issue. I’d be more interested in a 13” notebook with a 27” screen than an 8” Notebook with a 14-15” screen because, as I noted, for me, size does matter.
Around two decades ago I saw the future. Sony lent me what was then a medical-grade $20K high resolution (for the time) head-mounted display, and it was awesome. Designed for training and telemedicine and, given its price, it’s sales were relatively small in volume. But I took it to a Lan Party (group gaming event), and it was a huge hit. It was semi-translucent, and this could be adjusted so you could either see what was around you or not, depending on what you wanted to do. This semi-translucency allowed you to see your hands while typing (or operating) and made it so you didn’t feel isolated from what was around you. While the resolution wasn’t great by today’s standards it was in line with CRT monitors of the time, and I found I could work with the glasses on just fine, creating a monitor as large as I needed it to be.
Had the glasses been closer to $2K than $20K, I would have bought them in a hot minute, but Sony wanted them back, and I couldn’t afford or justify that kind of expense for a head-mounted monitor. It did point my way to the future and while foldable displays may be the near term future, and portable monitors the present, long term head-mounted displays will be the way to go eventually.
While coming products like the Surface Neo will address the need for those that want a 13” screen on a product that is far more portable, for now, those of us that want a bigger screen will need to use a portable display like the Lenovo ThinkVision M14. While I think that choice will play well with a female audience, which we frankly don’t focus enough on, that still leaves open a better solution for those of us that want to go bigger.
The final answer will be some head mounted display, and, I expect, we’ll see several attempts to come up with a solution that does what that old Sony headset I spoke of did better. I’ve been messing with a 4K headset from a company called Goovis, and while it doesn’t address the translucency requirement it does provide a very workable high-resolution image suggesting we are close.
Now we are just waiting for the vendor who will create the breakout laptop with an unlimited head-mounted screen.