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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > November/December 2005

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Vol. 25 No. 10 — Nov/Dec 2005
The New Visual Displays That Are 'Floating' Your Way
by Terence K. Huwe

When CIL turns its attention to the high-tech innovations that are new and hot, I always like to take a peek not only at what's available now but also at what's in the development pipeline. On the first count, the list of new gadgets, Web services, and paradigms that are already up and running seems longer than ever. We now have blogs in many flavors, podcasting for your cats (check out and for corporate intelligence (, MySpace (, and Web phones, Web phones, Web phones. And all of these are at the ready all the time. I mean, really ready. In mid-August, an electrical transformer under a sidewalk in San Francisco blew up and singed the Ralph Lauren store located above it. The event was captured on a Web phone, and the video clip appeared on the news within hours.

In our already-sped-up world, things are getting faster still. So why should we look into the future when it has already arrived? Two reasons. First, with design and market forces moving so quickly, we need to look ahead in order to stay current in the here and now. Second, every now and then a new pattern emerges that brings it all together. In the midst of a zillion competing memes (like MySpace and podcasting), I recently discovered an uber-hip subzone of technological innovation that rocked my world—the visual display of information. Visual display and human interaction are converging faster than ever. And I'm not just talking about those picture-taking phones, podcasts, and portable stuff. The tried-and-true display projector-plus-laptop setup we use so much will be getting some major makeovers too—and soon.

In thinking about how emerging technology will impact libraries, I always ask myself this question: What specifically can some groovy new gadget or software application do for our core services? That's one of those questions that seems so pedestrian yet can be surprisingly difficult to answer with certainty. The visual display of our digital collections lies very near to the heart of the user's experience of library research. Therefore, it touches just about every aspect of our work. So in keeping with the theme of hip high-tech, I'm going to describe some very experimental technologies that will affect our collections and services in the coming year or so.

Uber-Hip: From Water Vapor to Teleimmersion

Three new visual display strategies seem very promising to me. While each is unique in its technological approach, there's a common denominator to all three: better freedom of mobility that will allow people to interact more closely with online knowledge resources. These cool new technologies do have that overwhelming gee-whiz effect, but once you get past that—which takes about a nanosecond these days—the practical applications begin to emerge.

Water Vapor Technology. FogScreen ( utilizes a water vapor technology to project a display field that floats in the air (see figure). The vapor is microscopic, but it refracts light very effectively. You can walk through it without getting wet; you only feel a cool sensation. The airborne interface enables you to operate a computer by touching the display zone, and you can write or draw by touching the suspended water vapor.

FogScreen is at the forefront of a new type of free-floating visual display field. It reminds me of those mind-boggling shopping mall scenes from the 2002 movie Minority Report, where John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is ID'd and personally greeted by ads while he's on the lam. My bet is that we'll see some adware that mimics that effect before any academic or research applications appear. And what about in the electronic commons? Read on for a forecast.

Flexible Display Technology. There are two related polymer-based technologies that could revolutionize library instructional strategies. The first is organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). This material can be bent or folded, rolled up, or even woven into clothes. The military is experimenting with sewing OLED display panels into uniforms to deliver crucial data to the infantry. With the high profit margins of the apparel industry funding development, wearable art will also drive OLED technology to market.

The second soon-to-be-ubiquitous flexible display technology is light-emitting polymers (LEPs). LEPs are a big step up from the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that we use every day because they can conduct electricity. This enables them to carry light signals and to be programmed like a pixel field. Possible applications of LEPs include roll-up screens, spray-on screens, and hang-on-the-wall screens that will deliver good resolution.

Just like Flash memory made carrying CD-ROMs seem a little clunky, LEP applications (once we can afford them) will provide the ultimate portable display. You can forget about checking those screen projectors in at the airline counter. Instead, a rolled-up scroll may become the display field of choice. Perhaps the profession of town crier will see an uptick, if we can have Wi-Fi-enabled LEP screens set up in the middle of the street to provide passersby with news.

Speaking of screen projectors, they'll be getting smaller too. Tiny projectors with high lumen ratings are already upon us, and the next generation will be teeny, approaching the size of a thick credit card (much like those Web phone cameras that captured the Ralph Lauren store burning in San Francisco).

Teleimmersion. OLEDs and LEPs are all-new products that are based on technologies that haven't existed for long, but you should also look for innovations in established products. Teleimmersion is a case in point (see It combines aspects of virtual reality and videoconferencing to allow users in different locations to collaborate in a shared, simulated environment.

Hewlett-Packard (among others) has been experimenting with plasma screen wraparounds that give users the illusion of actually being in the presence of remote colleagues. Even though this approach is really just another spin on virtual conferencing, it's a good one, because everyone in a meeting will be able to see more visual cues and catch more subtextual maneuvers, which will make for a better experience. This innovation is possible because plasma screen resolution is already very good, and the consumer television market is driving the technology's price down.

What a Librarian Might Do

By now you have, no doubt, reached your gee-whiz overload level and are ready to hit the Delete button. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Smart Dust and other nanotechnologies were supposed to reinvent the landscape of corporation information management. It turns out, however, that early rollouts of these technologies are generally military in nature; the business applications come second. Yet, when it comes to visual display technologies, I think the growth of interactive library services will push new products into the electronic commons more quickly, because as consumers accept new display systems, business applications will quickly follow. The entertainment market has more influence on display pricing than military applications, which move into consumer markets more slowly.

But what will we do with these new technologies? Or perhaps a better question to ask is How can we use them innovatively in our digital libraries? Whether it's water vapor, flexible displays, or teleimmersion, the answers lie in the social forum of digital libraries—both physical and virtual. We can utilize flexible and mobile displays to connect people more creatively with the information they need. No less important, we need to help people connect to each other (think of MySpace). That's where convergence comes in. In short, we need to do more of what we're doing now—reference, instruction, and collection development—and to use the new mobility to reach out to our patrons with much more interactivity.

It may be a few years before we are actually using these technologies, but the more prepared we are, the more likely we will be able to make our electronic commons into destinations of choice. I see two trends emerging from these new flexible and mobile displays that will affect both instructional and collection work.

Display on Demand. Well-funded digital library facilities nowadays include computer labs, small group study rooms, cafes, slouchy living rooms, and (surprise!) lots of print for casual reading. Flexible displays could break down the barriers between these spaces and tasks. They would also allow training to occur in the open, which would attract interest. Staff will be able to perform reference with less reliance on public service desks and monitors and will be able to mix with patrons. In heavily used reference rooms, LEP technology could boost the social interactions of the electronic commons and could popularize the digital reference providers. But in order for this to be effective, those providers must be willing to be social.

The Consortial Commons. Much of the curricula in use these days depends on group learning, cohorts of classmates, and Web-enhanced teaching. Faculty and students now expect (or at the very least accept) that they'll be working in close collaboration outside of class hours. Teleimmersion will expand the world of potential collaborators, bringing opportunities for regional or even international teaching and allowing research groups to congregate more effectively. High-resolution displays that use plasma technology will also be much less exhausting for participants. (You won't leave a meeting with that behind-the-eyeballs headache you get from today's virtual conference rooms or from Web conferencing.)

Foresighted digital librarians can begin to think about their physical spaces, in order to take advantage of the potential uses of these emerging display technologies well before they even make their market debuts. A significant increase in collaborative work carries implications for a host of related collection issues. To name just a few, space on campus (or in central public libraries) will be at a higher premium for social uses. Using library areas for interactive purposes aligns very closely with teaching and research missions and could enhance the library's reputation. Also, dim or dark archives might become more pervasive and may be accepted more readily if display technologies boost teaching and training programs. Despite the heavy use and popularity of digital information, many physical library sites are still full of people doing lots of things, and the liveliness of flexible display technology will help us focus on collections in a more relevant style.

Looking Toward Tomorrow

It's interesting to me that even though we now have many more technological arenas to master than we once did, the convergence at work in display technologies reinforces the basic challenge we've always had—to match people with high-quality knowledge resources. The most important strategic practice for us nowadays is to follow where the technology is going and to figure out what it will mean for instructional services and collections. The best means to stay one step ahead is to look down the road, whether 6 months or 3 years, and to spend some precious time analyzing the unexpected side benefits of emerging technology. More than ever, that analysis has become a core competency for digital librarians.

Terence K. Huwe is past president of the Librarians Association of the University of California and director of library and information resources at the Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California–Berkeley. His responsibilities include library administration, reference, and overseeing Web services for several departments at campuses throughout the University of California. His e-mail address is

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