Transparent Laptops, Phones, and TVs Are a Dead End

A transparent TV or laptop looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, but they’re not very practical.

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It’s a weird time for screens. They’ve never been more present in our lives, given just how often we interact with them every day. But, strangely, they’ve also never played a bigger role in the plan to eliminate themselves, and other physical hardware.

With the Vision Pro, Apple is exploring a world where the only other screens you own are your phone and laptop. The rest can be replaced by the tiny, high-resolution displays of a headset. Meta, which has failed multiple times at making smartphones and controlling the screens we carry in our pockets, is trying to provide the affordable version of the mixed reality world Apple is exploring.

But scroll through Mobile World Congress 2024 stories and you’ll see another, parallel vision. Lenovo’s ThinkBook Transparent Display Laptop Concept is a “laptop” with a transparent Micro-LED display that makes the screen disappear when it’s not on or you’re not looking at an entirely white or black image.

Lenovo’s concept realizes a very specific science-fiction vision of the future of computers, but doesn’t seem particularly practical otherwise, and the tech company doesn’t seem convinced it should be a product yet. Despite the clamoring to abandon the physical screens in our lives, I’m not sure anyone actually wants a transparent display as much as they think they do.

Taking a Screen from Transparent to Opaque

The ThinkBook Transparent Display Laptop Concept is cool to look at, but seems terrible to use.

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Lenovo is clear in its press release announcing the ThinkBook Transparent Display Concept that its new device, while getting the same slathering of AI marketing, is very much not intended to be sold. Lenovo has real laptops and 2-in-1s for that. But it doesn’t mean the new ThinkBook is empty of ideas.

The 17.3-inch Micro-LED display Lenovo uses is paired with a flat touchscreen display base, designed as both a (flat) keyboard and a drawing tablet with support for stylus input. Graphic artists and architects — professions that require being able to see and interact with the outside world —seem like the kind of professionals Lenovo imagines might want a screen that doesn’t get in the way. There’s a camera on the outside of the concept that, paired with onboard AI, allows for image recognition and rudimentary AI experiences, according to hands-on articles published by The Verge and Gizmodo, but otherwise the charm here is that you can look through it.

The ThinkBook concept is a cool-looking device and inspires easy comparisons to any number of genre properties, be it Iron Man or The Expanse, but you can already see the potential issues, too. The Verge writes that the Micro-LED Lenovo uses, while capable of reaching 1,000 nits of brightness, is only displaying images and text at 720p. The touchscreen base means an accurate or pleasing typing experience is out the door, too. And as of right now, it’s not really clear if you can make the screen fully opaque when you don’t want it completely transparent.

The LG Signature OLED T needs a “contrast screen” rolled up to look like a normal television.

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The transparent LG Signature OLED T television that debuted at CES 2024 is similarly confusing as a product. It’s a transparent 4K OLED that should offer the image quality and general performance of LG’s other TVs, but it uses the company’s new wireless breakout box for handling connections over HDMI, and without its retractable contrast screen rolled out, it’s entirely see-through.

The goal is to create a TV that works with your decor rather than against it, one LG is proud to say doesn’t need to be placed against a wall because it looks almost invisible. Or use it as a virtual fish tank when you’re not watching TV, or as an info ticker with updates and the weather forecast moving by in a small scrolling bar at the bottom. The catch with the LG Signature OLED T is really in its core functionality. If I have to roll up a back screen to make it usable, why even have a transparent TV in the first place? Is the black mirror of a powered-off television so disgusting that I need to pay multiple thousands of dollars more for it to look like slightly opaque glass when I’m not using it? It’s a pretty weird flex, and one to which Samsung’s The Frame, which is always on in a lower power mode displaying art, seems like a perfectly acceptable and affordable alternative.

What Do We Have Against Physical Objects?

This trend of transparent screens didn’t start with LG or Lenovo. Sony Ericsson, Polytron, and others have tried out transparent phones and other display technologies to sell their own visions of the future and spice up a boring trade show booth. But what feels weird about this current move towards transparency is how it ignores what's actually popular right now.

There’s a well-documented obsession with gadgets and accessories with see-through shells, whether they're clear or colored. Handheld game consoles, chargers, even the Nothing Phone 2 base some of its appeal on its transparent glass back. Some of it has to be ‘90s nostalgia, when clear plastic was just a more common design trend, but I think an equal amount has to do with wanting to see the inner workings of our gadgets, even if we’re not really seeing how they work. We like knowing that the physical computer we hold and use is made of components that work towards a task.

These transparent TVs, laptops, and smartphones seem like the opposite. They’re ceding themselves to software; they’re see-through unless the software is running. They’re designed to eliminate themselves. It’s a quality that’s aligned with a similar idea burbling up in augmented and mixed reality spaces, that the physical objects we use every day, like monitors, could just be virtual, endlessly resizable and easy to move around. I get the appeal, I really do. But does making everything digital actually give us more control? What do people have against physical objects?

Let Screens Be Screens

With the right pair of blinders on, we live in very exciting times. AI gadgets are legitimately reimagining how we compute. It’s never been easier or better to play games on the go. Screens can fold and fit in your pocket, and they don’t even have to be that expensive. And augmented reality has never seemed like more of a possibility.

But these new ideas also make us even more reliant on software, something that’s not always easy to understand or get control over, especially if you’re not going to take the time to learn how. Transparent displays are neat to the point of feeling like fantasy, but they’re an inefficient and unsustainable source of excitement for the future, and I’m not sure they make much sense. Both because of the technical impracticalities and frivolities they introduce into the simple act of watching TV or using your laptop, and because by disappearing, they put even more distance between the hardware we own and the things they’re actually supposed to do.

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