The Future of Transparent Screens Isn't Iron Man's Smartphone – It's Bigger and Better

Transparent displays are going to get larger before they get smaller.


Remember the amazing transparent smartphone used by Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies? Two small bezels opened up to make a small pane of transparent glass that the billionaire superhero used to hack governments, work on science experiments, and control various aspects of his suit. Today’s real-life technology is advancing fast but can’t be shrunk down to the size of a smartphone yet. Still, larger displays are doing impressive things and in a decade or so could be even cooler than the tech imagined by Stark Industries.

Science fiction movies have imagined these futuristic screens for years, but manufacturers of these technologies – Planar Systems, for one – aren’t thinking smaller; they are thinking bigger.

The right size for transparency

“Transparent screens by their very nature make what’s happening on the front of the screen happen on the back of the screen,” Jennifer Davis, vice president of marketing and product strategy at Planar, tells Inverse. “There are lots of things people do on their phones that they don’t want everybody watching. Playing a silly cat video or typing a sensitive email or text, they want that to be a private moment.”

Because of this, it’s not clear why consumers will want transparent screen technologies on their personal devices. On larger, more communal screens, however, see-through displays make more sense.

Panasonic's transparent display turns clear to reveal shelves. 


At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Panasonic showed off some eye-dazzling transparent TVs, which could switch between a clear window display shelf of art sculptures and a large HD TV. The demo screen even lowers down closer to the ground for kids to watch and allows access to the shelves behind it. The TV could also go partially transparent to show text overlaid on top of the items on the shelves for the world’s fanciest and most expensive weather app.

However, Planar takes the concept one step further to allow touch controls on the screen. Davis says this means the screens could be used in a variety of ways, including waypoint kiosks in cities, information displays in museums, or retail store displays.

“If your experience with the display is going to be transparent, and I mean that in every sense of the word, and it’s going to be visible and an element of publicness to it, why not make it a social experience?” Davis says.

And this isn’t some future fantasy: These screens are available and shipping now. The smallest model, a 55-inch 1080 full HD display, runs a whopping $15,000 online. So, while you probably won’t be buying one for your home anytime soon, they’re already shipping to businesses and the ultra wealthy.

Planar's concept video shows what a window display could look like. 


Doing way more than any normal screen

There are some pretty interesting applications for this technology that expand beyond the abilities of normal TVs.

For example, Planar is looking to sell to museums for interactive, augmented reality displays that don’t require large headsets. Davis says visitors could look at dinosaur bone reconstructions through the glass with text and graphics overlaid to give more information about the extinct creature.

This idea would take the very private, singular experience of something like Microsoft’s HoloLens and bring it to a group social setting.

The screens could also be used similarly in retail: Think of a giant storefront window that creates an intricate display including both the live product and the digital ad. Large displays could even point to where the best deals are being sold in the store and map out a path directly on the floor that shows how to get you there.

Davis even says hospitals could install a digital assistant in the lobby to give instructions, directions, and help fill out digital forms by interacting back with users’ mobile devices for a more private experience.

Planar concept images show what several connected screens could do. 


Ultimately, Davis says the company doesn’t want to just plop big square displays into existing buildings; it want its screens to become part of the very structure itself by lining walls and hallways with interactive displays.

“We’d like to see video walls and displays and transparent displays be integrated into the design – in fact, integral to the design,” says Davis. “We see a growing number of [partners] thinking about how user experience transcends the buttons on a screen to the physical environment.”

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