Blinded By The Light: Why Wearables Are Outperforming Tablets and Laptops Outdoors


Ross Rubin

September 23, 2015

As summer wanes, many parts of the country will be still balmy enough to enjoy any number of outdoor leisure activities. But if you plan to enjoy some fresh air as you toil away on your laptop, you’ll likely be seeking the shade. This is because most LCDs—the displays on virtually all laptops and many tablets and smartphones—are notoriously prone to being washed out by the sun. Companies routinely make trade-offs between display size, brightness, and resolution, so it’s bizarre that nobody has solved this problem. But with wearables, the tide may be starting to turn.

The smartwatch category has opened up a lot more creativity when it comes to displays. Many companies, including Apple and Samsung but also luxury startup Olio, have cranked up the brightness of their OLED displays to provide better outdoor readability. But others, including smartwatch startups Pebble and MetaWatch, have used reflective displays—technologies such as Sharp’s Memory LCD. Another such reflective display is from Mirasol, a Qualcomm subsidiary that the chip giant has invested heavily in but has seen little commercial use. Mirasol screen technology was in Qualcomm’s Toq watch that served as the reference design for the Timex Ironman One GPS+ smartwatch offered via AT&T.

The Moto 360 Sport display works well indoors and out.

Most recently, Motorola has addressed the outdoor visibility issue with its new 360 Sport design. The Android Wear device integrates two display technologies—a reflective one for outdoors and a more traditional one for indoors. However, Motorola has hesitated to use that approach on the other new models of its watch because doing so involves some compromises in terms of indoor screen quality. Indeed, the colors on watches such as the Qualcomm Toq and Pebble Time are muted at best; the latter offers poor contrast and viewing angles.

A few dynamics of the smartwatch market make it a better candidate for experimenting with these displays. For one thing, it’s a smaller market with less competition that is targeting early adopters more forgiving of the displays’ drawbacks. According to Jennifer Colgrove, president of Touch Display Research, these can include limited viewing angles, low contrast, poor visibility in low light, high prices, and low manufacturing yields. The screen sizes are also smaller and the curved nature of some wearables lend themselves well to these flexible display technologies. In terms of user requirements, with so much of a smartwatch’s value in notifications available at a glance, there’s a premium on being able to see that information outside when a phone is often in a pocket.

The Freewrite, née Hemingwrite, is an e-ink writing appliance.Photo: via Kickstarter

Few larger reflective display products have been attempted. In 2007, with the original XO kid-oriented computing device, One Laptop Per Child served a specialized market with a display that could shift from outdoor to indoor mode. And In 2011, the much-hyped Notion Ink Adam tablet used similar technology but became a pricey failure. Pixel Qi, the company that developed that technology, faded away like a ghosting screen image.

Since then, trying to track down such a tablet or laptop with a reflective screen has involved an X-Files-like search to the fringes of computing. One crowdfunding project to build a laptop-like “e-writer” called Fusion Writer (similar to the name of an educational writing appliance) attracted little more than $100 of its $50,000 goal. A more successful Kickstarter campaign spurred Freewrite, a chunky cloud-synced typewriter-styled throwback with a small e-paper screen. It focuses more on simplicity, durability, and typing experience than portability.

Few e-paper displays support keyboard input.

In what has become a crowdfunding cliché, the product has been beset by delays. The product missed its initial estimated ship date of June 2015, and then missed its estimate of reopening preorders in July. It now expects to ship this winter for $499.

There have, of course, been successful e-paper e-readers. But few have any integrated apps or support for an app store such as Google Play. A rare exception is the $340 Icarus E1051BK, an iPad-sized e-reader that supports Google Play and Bluetooth keyboard input.

Until the pieces come together, outdoor laptop users are stuck with trying to minimize the impact of the sun from their screens. One option is a pop-up shade. These are often pricey because they are usually intended for pro photographers and videographers in mind. Another is a polarized sunglasses Kickstarter project from a pair of MIT alums. While its results look promising, one must choose between glasses optimized for laptops or smartphones. It’s due to ship next summer. At least until then, those looking for an easier read will have to come up with another bright idea.

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This article was written by Ross Rubin from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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