Like many, I firmly believe that the future of education lies with the tablet. These days it seems to be the conventional wisdom that tablets will become ubiquitous in the classroom and will eventually supplant the book as the essential tool of aspiring students everywhere. Tablets are obviously more powerful and versatile than their fixed-text forerunners; however, I believe that there is an important modification to the current line of tablets that would behoove the education movement immensely. It may sound ridiculous, but what tablets most need to do is to get rid of the traditional luminescent displays, and replace them with e-paper.
In order to justify such a replacement, we need to consider two cases: what e-paper currently does better than luminescent technologies such as LCDs, and what advances need to be made in e-paper in order for it to be optimal for academic tasks.
Of the attributes most readily associated with e-paper displays, the one that is most closely linked with the technology is that of longevity. The battery life on any e-reader that uses one is mind-boggling. They are the longest-lasting electronic devices with 6-inch displays that I’ve ever owned, and that is due in no small part to the decision to go with the e-paper display. For fans of marathon sessions in the library, a device that’s going to outlast you is absolutely imperative for the move into post-paper academia.
A task that may not cross your mind is sharing. How many times have you been huddled around the same textbook arguing about mitochondria or some other scientific nugget? What does that have to do with anything? Viewing angles. Viewing angles on e-paper are nearly unlimited, something that even the best tablet displays, IPS included, fall short of.
It’s not just viewing from an angle. Viewing in sunlight is an even more arduous task. By the time you make it bright enough to read, you might as well be staring into the sun, which makes the already eye-strain inducing LCD that much worse.
All of these contrasts are drawn out because of the underlying technological differences of both displays. The emission of light from displays such as LCDs has a detrimental effect on all of these aspects, from battery life to comfort of reading. But it would be a disservice not to mention the shortfalls that the current e-paper displays suffer from. Indeed, in order to be as good or better than the current LCD technology, e-paper is going to have to take some major strides forward.
The most glaring weakness of e-Ink is the inability to render color effectively. Yes, I know of at least one display that boasts of that ability, but the colors are so muted and depressed they might as well be considered shades of gray. In order for most charts and graphs to be effective or even understandable, the elements within them and therefore their color must be readily discernable.
The other shortfalls of e-paper are too obvious to merit drawn-out discussion: The sluggish refresh rate, the poor-but-developing touch controls. In order to really push e-paper to the forefront, the technology behind the display and the guts driving it need to become more robust. It will not become commonplace until the best is taken from both worlds. Enough with e-paper readers; the need is for hybrid e-paper tablets: fully featured devices that support multi-finger touch, deeper operating systems and annotation. Maybe then I’ll go back to school.