The Future of Tablets

This is what your tablet will look like in five years.

Your Tablet in Five Years

Folding tablets. Solar-powered slates. Apps that automatically install--and delete--themselves based on your location. Superslim, flexible devices that fit in your pocket like a sheet of paper. Not all of these concepts will survive the leap from research to retail, but many will ship before you know it. Here are some of the most intriguing tablets and tablet apps that tech visionaries are developing.

The Sheet Tablet

Newspapers and magazines are foldable. Why not tablets? Well, one very good reason is that they contain various nonbendy components such as processors, memory chips, and batteries. But ongoing innovations in nanotechnology, including nanowires made of copper, could lead to flexible newsreaders similar to Innovation+Bermer Labs' futuristic NewSSlate prototype, which unfolds like a sheet of paper. Combine that effort with research into using DNA strands to construct processors, as well a Stanford University nanotech project to build bendable batteries out of paper, and suddenly the foldable tablet doesn't seem so far-fetched.

See Me, Feel Me

Future tablets and smartphones will monitor you and the world you live in. According to Rice University computer science professor Lin Zhong, mobile devices a decade from now will have sensing capabilities, including the ability to interact with wireless sensors worn on or implanted in the user's body. They could also work with sensors in the environment, perhaps to collect weather information to transmit wirelessly to cloud-based data centers. Who knows--your tablet or phone may someday warn you of an impending heart attack before you feel any symptoms.

Tablet With Airbags

Durable cases for drop-proofing your tablet aren't new. But Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has come up with an alternative design that may be clever or crazy--or a little of both. In February 2010, Bezos reportedly applied for a patent for an airbag system for mobile devices. The airbags, of course, are designed to cushion the impact of the inevitable tablet plunge to the pavement. A ruggedized case may provide similar protection, but wouldn't it be cool to see airbags deploy on tumbling tablet? No word yet as to whether Bezos's alleged airbag system will leave the drawing board.

Bits and Pieces

Care to assemble your own tablet from a dozen or so mini-mobile components? The Mobikom concept from designer Kamil Izrailov features square hardware chunklets that use "micro-locks" to hook up, according to the Design Buzz blog. Each piece has its own power supply and processor. The more Mobikom squares you connect, the greater the capabilities of the device, be it a smartphone or a tablet. There's one big problem, though: How do you minimize the risk of losing a square or two? Scrabble and Lego fans, you know what I mean.

Location, Location, Location

Location-savvy services such as Foursquare tell the online world where you're dining, shopping, or loitering. But future tablet and phone apps will do much more than anoint you the Mayor of Starbucks. in July Fujitsu Laboratories announced a new mobile platform that automatically downloads and runs--and later erases--apps and data appropriate for a particular time and place. If you bring your tablet to the Museum of Natural History, for instance, Fujitsu's cloud-based system will identify where you are and immediately push the museum's navigation guide to your slate. When you leave the museum, it will automatically delete the guide. Naturally, the system will also work with smartphones and PCs. Too creepy? Let's hope that there's an opt-out button.

Tablet-Laptop Convergence

Tablets and laptops are on a collision course. Both genres are growing thinner and lighter--witness the Apple iPad 2 and MacBook Air, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Series 9, and a host of upcoming, Air-like Ultrabook notebooks. Meld lean laptops with finger-friendly desktop operating systems--specifically the gesture-happy Lion OS X 10.7 and forthcoming Windows 8--and a harmonic convergence can't be far off. The Lenovo IdeaPad U1, a combination of Android tablet and Windows laptop, may be a sign of things to come. And don't forget Google's Android and Chrome OS operating systems, two mobile platforms destined to merge in the future.

Tablet Ringing? Answer With the Stick Phone

Here's a clever idea from designer Antoine Brieux: the HTC Stick Phone, a slim and sleek basic phone that fits inside the HTC Tube Tablet, another Brieux concept. The tablet-phone combo could be a boon to users who'd rather not lug around two mobile devices. Besides, why carry a smartphone that duplicates the capabilities of your tablet? Indeed, the Stick Phone may find a receptive audience--if it ever ships.

Origami Original

The clever Feno concept may be a laptop, but its fold-tastic design would work for tablets, too. The Feno's display has an additional hinge that allows the screen to fold in half and wrap around the keyboard. A tablet version could have a detachable keyboard, perhaps, or even a third screen fold. And if you're fretting that a foldable screen might mar the view with a visible crease, there's good news. Researchers at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology are working on a flexible OLED display capable of folding without the dreaded crease.

Reality With Subtitles

Augmented-reality apps are already available for tablets and smartphones, but they're rudimentary compared to what's coming. Today, for instance, the aptly named Augmented Reality app for iOS devices displays points of interest (including restaurants, transit stops, and coffee shops) over a live view of a real-world environment such as the street you're standing on. AR is better suited to tablets than to smartphones, as graphical overlays are easier to view and interact with on a tablet-size screen.

So what does the future hold for AR? As this Hidden Creative video illustrates, it may include the ability to point a tablet/phone camera at a hotel, see an overlay of vacant rooms, and book a reservation on the spot.

Don't Write Off the Pen

Before the iPad, stylus-based tablets tried (and failed) to win consumers' hearts. But the pen/slate combo may still have a future, particularly in niche markets where touch input is just too clumsy. The mPad is a big-screen tablet created to meet the needs of designers. According to future-tech site Information Technology, designer Volker Hubner's concept slate has a 15.6-inch OLED display, a scrollwheel, programmable short cuts for software applications, and an ergonomically friendly case that inclines 15 degrees. The learning curve might be a bit demanding, but this tablet isn't for the Angry Birds crowd.

Solar-Powered Tablet

Pixel Qi designs hybrid displays for mobile devices that are just as easy to read outdoors as indoors. The company has developed a 1-watt solar panel containing new, higher-efficiency cells that can power a screen and a motherboard. A panel placed around the bezel, in fact, could provide enough juice to run low-power tablets and e-readers, the company says. In full sunlight, the Pixel Qi solar panel provides 1 watt of power. In partial sun, of course, it produces less juice. Solar bezels may someday be standard on low-cost tablets, such as One Laptop Per Child's upcoming XO-3 device, which is designed for students in developing countries.

Tablet With Felt Keyboard-Pouch

With most tablets, a case is just a case. But with the HiLo concept slate, the carrying pouch doubles as a wireless QWERTY keyboard. The HiLo, which features a 10-inch OLED, slides inside its felt keyboard jacket for comfy carrying. Soft as a Santa stocking, yes, but probably not the best protection against drops and knocks. The felt case features fused keys and a pointing device for users who don't like touchscreens.

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