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The End of Screens?

Image by Sightful

Believe it or not, one of the most important technology announcements of the past few months had nothing to do with artificial intelligence. While critics and boosters continue to stir and fret over the latest capabilities of ChatGPT, a largely unknown 60-person start-up, based out of Tel Aviv, quietly began demoing a product that might foretell an equally impactful economic disruption.

The company is named Sightful and their new offering is Spacetop: “the world’s first augmented reality laptop.” Spacetop consists of a standard computer keyboard tethered to pair of goggles, styled like an unusually chunky pair of sport sunglasses. When you put on the goggles, the Spacetop technology inserts multiple large virtual computer screens into your visual field, floating above the keyboard as if you were using a computer connected to large external monitors.

As oppose to virtual reality technology, which places you into an entirely artificial setting, Spacetop is an example of augmented reality (AR), which places virtual elements into the real world. The goggles are transparent: when you put them on at your table in Starbucks you still see the coffee shop all around you. The difference is now there are also virtual computer screens floating above your macchiato.

To be clear, I don’t believe that this specific product, which is just now entering a limited, 1000-person beta testing phase, will imminently upend the technology industry. The goggles are still too big and unwieldy (more Google Glass than Ray Ban), and the field of vision for their virtual projections remains too limited to fully support the illusion of screens that exist in real space.

But I increasingly believe that Sightful may have stumbled into the right strategy for finally pushing AR into the mainstream. Unlike Magic Leap, the over-hyped Google-backed start-up that burned through $4 billion trying to develop a general-purpose AR device that could do all things for all people, Sightful has remained much more focused with their initial product.

Spacetop solves a narrow problem that’s perfectly suited for AR: limited screen space for mobile computing. Their initial audience will likely be power users who desperately crave monitor real estate. (As I learned researching a 2021 New Yorker article about working in virtual reality, computer programmers, in particular, will happily embrace even the most wonky of cutting-edge technologies if it allow them to use more windows simultaneously.)

This narrowness simplifies many of the technical issues that afflicted the general-purpose AR technologies developed by companies like Magic Leap. Projecting virtual screens is much easier than trying to render arbitrary 3D objects in a real space, as you don’t have to worry about matching the ambient lighting. Furthermore, the keyboard base provides a familiar user interface and vastly simplifies the process of tracking head movements.

In other words, this is a problem that AR has a chance to convincingly solve. And once this door is open, and AR emerges as a legitimate profitable consumer technology, significant disruption might soon follow.

Imagine the following scenario:

  • In the third generation of their technology, Sightful achieves a small enough form-factor and large enough field of vision for their AR goggles to appeal to the much broader market segment of business users looking for more screen space when working away from the orfice.
  • Seeing the potential, Apple invests several hundred million dollars to develop the iGlass: a pair of fashion-forward AR goggles, connected wirelessly to an elegant, foldable base on which you can touch or type, marketed as a replacement for the iPad and MacBook that can fit in your pocket while still providing you a screen bigger than their biggest studio monitors.
  • Spooked, Samsung scrambles to release a high-end AR television experience that allows you to enjoy a virtual 200-inch television in any room.
  • Apple smells blood and adds television functionality as a software update to iGlass. Soon Samsung’s market drastically shrinks. This sets off the first of multiple cataclysmic consolidations in the consumer electronics sector.
  • Within a decade, we find ourselves in a world largely devoid of screens. Computation unfolds in the cloud and is presented to us as digital projections on thin plastic optical wave-guides positioned inches from our eyes.

I don’t, at this point, mean this prognostication to be either optimistic or dystopian. I want only to emphasize that in a moment in which we’re all so enthralled with the question of whether or not autoregressive token predictors might take our jobs, there are some other major technological fault lines that are beginning to rumble and might very well be close to radically shifting.


In other news:

  • Speaking of a potential AR revolution, I talked about Apple’s upcoming splashy entrance into this space during the final segment of Episode 249 of my podcast, Deep Questions.
  • My friend Adam Alter, who I quoted extensively in Digital Minimalism, has a fantastic new book out titled Anatomy of a Breakthrough. Here’s my blurb from the back cover: “A deeply researched and compelling guide to breaking through the inevitable obstacles on the path to meaningful accomplishment.” Check it out!

22 thoughts on “The End of Screens?”

  1. I like it and would buy that if I can connect to my Chromebook. The company, however, needs to give a realistic view of the end user. This guy in the pic has not one, but two, NEWSPAPERS on his desk. I guess virtual screens are just not enough!

  2. nreal glasses do most of this already a lot of people use it with Samsung dex or triple monitors with nebula and Mac m1 or M2 processors.

    • Isn’t tmux a tool to expand the flexibility of what you display on your screen? How are you using tmux to use a computer without a physical screen?

      • I wonder if it was a play on words with how Gnu Screen has been supplanted by Tmux in some cases?

  3. “Apple smells blood.” – Hilarious, I love it!

    I hope the screen fidelity evolves to the degree required by apps such as photography and video editing. (Ironic if this were to take longer than Kurzweil’s prediction that we’ll have medical capabilities in 10 years to become immortal.)

  4. I think its a brilliant idea. I recently purchased the Nreal glasses if this invention can take it a step further I’m all for it.

  5. This is the continued trend to move things from hardware into software to escape the limits of the physical, sure often, but not always, remains some hardware, but it gets smaller, cheaper and less material.

  6. AR is already in the mainstream. From heads-up displays to image codes such as QR to live image filters and camera-based translation apps, AR is increasingly a part of our daily experience.
    On the subject of virtual ‘screens’ in AR space, this might actually turn out to be a bad idea in some cases. For instance, suppose a user was enjoying his television functionality while walking or, worse, operating machinery… On the other hand, it would make enjoying movies while reclined anywhere much better than a screen in the lap.
    Last thought: AR screens have been around for a while. I’ve been experimenting with Rokid’s offerings but what, to me, would make AR more accessible is better input devices than a keyboard or touchscreen. Such virtual input devices are in development, and speech input keeps improving. That is the tech I’m looking forward to – which should get us closer to the Iron Man kind of AR that might really be a game-changer.

  7. I’m less interested in the mobile application as I am in expanding my desktop setup, both at home and at work. Additional virtual screens, especially private screens that only I can see? An extremely appealing proposition!

  8. Is there information on how our eyes focus on these AR displays and the impacts to vision over long-term usage? Is it the same as focusing on a screen on our desktop, or are the eyes focusing on the lenses of the glasses? If it’s the latter, this will drive vision issues even faster than current screen usage.

    Either way, this is the future. Next steps will be AR contact lenses then surgical implants. No peripherals needed. Implant the audio, too, and we’ll be walking mobile devices.

  9. While this is an interesting innovation, my reaction is that this idea seems creepy. I can imagine that mass exposure to this type of technology might be difficult for the brain to process. And I agree with Mark Shields in that there could be a negative effect on vision.

  10. Hey Cal. Thanks for sharing. Would you buy a product like this? Do you think it would enhance or detract from one’s ability to work deeply? Thanks! Conor

  11. Surprised to see you cover the topic without reference to the anticipated effects this will have on our already too-distracted population. How do you do deep work when screens are ubiquitous in your visual field? Why bother communicating with anyone or living the deep life when you can watch TV in an instant anytime with zero effort? So often big tech companies leap before asking important questions about second order consequences of major technological shifts. I don’t like where we are heading, and I don’t like what it says about our values. 95% of the world’s diseases have no treatment, the planet is in a dire state, and a quarter of our teen girls are suicidal. These are problems worthy of major investment and require developers’ time too. A Huxleyan shift to make screens so accessible we never have to be without them isn’t the transformation we need.

  12. Very interesting! Especially with the timing of Apple’s Vision they announced yesterday. While I’m not convinced that Apple’s current implementation is suitable for daily wearables (i.e. outdoors/on the train), it’s a huge step in the same direction. Thanks for sharing!


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