First Click: The clear appeal of transparent gadgets

May 12th, 2015

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I still remember the first time I saw the transparent iSub speaker revealed by Steve Jobs in 2000. Designed by Apple and sold by Harman Kardon, it looked like a wormhole devouring a Death Star. I had to have it no matter how it sounded because I wanted to own a piece of science fiction.

There’s something undeniably appealing about transparent electronics like Sony’s new LED speaker lightbulb. See-thru cases on products like the Fx0 and Game Boy Advance give us a glimpse at the incredible magic within. It’s like watching an Olympic sprinter drop the sweats to expose a uniformed body purpose-built for the task at hand. Instead of muscle there’s silicon, instead of tendon there’s non-conductive substrate.

It happened again in 2002 as I watched Tom Cruise’s extended arms gesticulate across a transparent display in Minority Report. This is the future of computing! I thought with absolute certainty, despite the interface being a terrible idea. You can’t watch a sci-fi flick anymore without an obligatory sheet of clear glass acting as a computer. There’s Tony Stark’s LG-branded phone in Iron Man 2 (2010) and those tablets in Avatar (2009) and The Machine (2013) to name just a few examples. But Hollywood’s not alone in perpetuating these diaphanous dreams.

Sony Ericsson actually released an Xperia handset with a transparent display back in 2009 called the Pureness. The $1,000 candybar only existed because Sony wanted to flex its product muscle, yet it still found plenty of fans for what proved to be a lackluster device. It was followed by a double-sided touchscreen prototype from NTT Docomo in 2012 and that clear Polytron smartphone from 2013. Today’s industry trade shows are rife with transparent LCD monitors and refrigerator doors that never quite make it to mass production. It’s almost as if Hollywood was in cahoots with the consumer electronics industry to whet our appetites for those next-generation devices we’ll be using in the future.

Oh right, they are.

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