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PlasticTab, a flexible, paper-thin tablet screen, debuts at CES

PaperTab screens are thin, bendable and position-aware, so multiple screens interact with each other much like browser windows do. (Courtesy Queen’s University)

In 10 years, you might be able to carry your computer everywhere — but in a binder, not a briefcase. That’s the promise of Intel, Plastic Logic and Ontario’s Queen’s University, who will debut a bendable, paper-thin, 10.7-inch screen called the PlasticTab at the International CES tech show tomorrow.

PlasticTab’s designers hail it as a “disruptive user experience,” and it certainly differs from the interface most customers know now. Imagine some cross between the iPad and the grabbable, touch-screen interface of “Minority Report”: a whole bunch of small, interconnected, position-aware screens that users bend and bump to complete actions. Putting two screens side by side automatically stretches the display across both; tapping one screen with another can pull up a PDF or attach a photo to an e-mail.

The future isn’t here yet, unfortunately. Despite its “tablet” billing, the PlasticTab is still just a screen, not a full-scale computer. Users have to connect the screen to a processor (in this case, the Intel Core i5) via a series of unwieldy ribbon cables. In demo videos, the grayscale display also looks a little splotchy — not unlike an Etch-a-Sketch — though Queen’s University writes in a news release that the quality is high-resolution.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the futuristic PlasticTab, however, is how hard it tries to mimic the past. The screen’s publicists tout its “magazine-like reading experience” and its similarity to sheets of paper. Its makers say it emulates the old-school, pre-digital shuffling of stacks of paper on a desk.

That’s a philosophical direction few others are taking. Electronics heavyweights such as LG and Sony hyped ultra-futuristic screens with 3D displays and 4,000-pixel resolution for CES. Lenovo’s new 27-inch IdeaCentre PC, which lays flat on a tabletop, will let multiple people use it at once — a jump from our early computing paradigms.

Where screens are concerned, apparently, the future remains flexible.

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