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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible


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A Modest Proposal: Transparent Tablets

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the series “A Modest Proposal,” my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

At times a new piece of technology comes along that is so novel that you want to see it in a device to use it but scratch your head as to what that device might be. Such is the case, I think, with the transparent battery.

Photo of the transparent, flexible battery, with a microscope image of the grid of trenches making up the battery's electrodes. Credit: the Cui Group, Stanford University.

Scientists have already created similarly clear video displays, touch screens, microchips and solar cells. Now researchers have developed transparent, flexible lithium-ion batteries, the kind now popular in consumer electronics because of how much power they can store. Altogether, such technologies raise the prospect of entirely see-through mobile devices.

The question, then, is would anyone ever want a see-through mobile device? If you wanted to power, say, a pair of augmented reality glasses, you could have batteries hidden in the frames of the glasses that do not need to be transparent. An opaque battery looks even more attractive given the fact that transparent batteries do not seem able to store as much energy, although transparent batteries over the lenses could supplement opaque batteries in the frames to give such glasses longer staying power.

Transparency is often cool but unnecessary in mobile devices.

I don’t think a transparent smartphone or laptop would make sense. The virtue of those devices nowadays largely seems to me to lie in how powerful their processors are, and I’m guessing transparent electronics are less capable in that regard.

Do we really need transparent phones?

However, a key virtue of tablet computers — perhaps the key virtue — lies in displaying information. Having a transparent, flexible tablet computer might thus be very attractive. The one use I brainstormed that made any sense to me would be as a handheld augmented reality window. Perhaps they can replace traditional maps, or be a way to see how clothing might look on a person or see how a place might have looked in the past or might look in the future. Still, when it comes to such a tablet, I’d expect a frame around the see-through center that housed opaque batteries and other electronics to boost such its usefulness.

You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at toohardforscience@gmail.com and follow the series on Twitter at #modestproposal.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Donalbain 4:19 am 08/24/2011

    I dont really see how a transparent tablet would be all that much better than a tablet with a camera on the back. If you want “transparency”, just set the background of your tablet screen to be the image from the camera.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Wayne Williamson 7:21 pm 08/24/2011

    Don’t know how useful it would be but the best example is the scifi flick on mars with Val Kilmer(Red Planet)…had cool tech….

    Link to this

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