Display size governs the physical form factor of mobile devices and, by extension, determines the user experience. If the display could be freed from the confines of the physical frame – typically a rectangular canvas like a smartphone or tablet – a newly liberated digital experience design may emerge in unexpected ways.
Sony’s Xperia Touch, an Android-based ultra short throw projector due to go on sale in 2017 for around $1500, provides a test bed for this theory. It is creates a touchable display on flat surfaces like coffee tables and kitchen counters.
Trade show demonstrations have shown how users can turn their kitchen work surface into an interactive cookbook or how a desk can transform into a touchable calendar. Powered by Android Nougat and some of Sony’s own customisations, most Android apps appear to run smoothly, often simply defaulting to their standard tablet-size UI.
This video, recorded by LinusTechTips at CES in January 2017, tours its capabilities.
The Xperia Touch is small, (about the size of two hardback books side-by-side) and portable (weighing just under 1 kilo). It projects an image ranging from 23 to 80 inches at a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and a brightness of 100 lumens.
Sony has also demonstrated its support for 10 point multi-touch, allowing two or more users to interact simultaneously through the virtual display. This raises the possibility of making good the promise of simultaneous multi-person user interfaces (SMUIs) – a novel branch of digital design we began exploring through the MEX initiative with the advent of tablets, but which is yet to fulfill its potential.
Sony is, of course, by no means the first manufacturer to experiment with combining mobile platforms and projectors. Touchjet’s Pond offers something similar for $600, but relies on proprietary active stylus pens for its touch interface. The Moto Z smartphone can be expanded with a clip-on projector module, but it doesn’t support touch interaction.
The design concept of the Xperia Touch is the most promising approach I’ve seen and provides an opportunity to experiment with experience design outside the physical frame – something which should be a priority for all digital practitioners eager to keep their skills sharp. Price and limited distribution will constrain the prospects of this first iteration, but it represents a starting point I hope Sony and others will expand upon.
Imagine how this could combine with other digital touchpoints. How long will it be before similar capabilities are embedded within a smartphone or tablet, allowing users to manifest a shareable digital interface wherever they are? What if the projector was embedded within a companion drone, capable of hovering on its own and creating a display wherever the user required?
Projection is one of several ways in which the hitherto unbreakable link between device size, display size and experiential capabilities is being challenged. Digital eyewear is another promising area, while voice and haptic UIs side-by-step the issue entirely by providing non-visual channels to the digital world.
Virtual, augmented and mixed reality products like HoloLens and Daydream are often seen as being in the vanguard of this evolution, but the level of immersion required by these experiences is a somewhat misleading guide to the future.
The larger concept at play here is the notion that digital capabilities – through projection, augmentation or other more subtle forms of ingress – will become woven into the physical fabric of life. The dream of ubiquitous computing will not come in boxes, but rather will hover and shimmer in transient spaces around us. I’ve touched on this notion before in my experimental essay ‘Canvas to orb: an inflexion point in digital experience design’ and it is now a theme core to the next cycle of the MEX initiative, across our events, publishing and advisory work.