The Grumpy Troll

Ramblings of a grumpy troll.

A tablet that wows

I'm getting tired of seeing the same old tired specifications lists for phones and for tablets.

Various manufacturers lust after the sales figures of the iPad, and see Android as a good way to at least be part of a viable ecosystem of apps, making their devices sellable. Yet few seem to understand that if you're not “very cheap” then you need to make the potential customer go “Wow!” and actively want to hand over the money you charge, of wanting to save up money and forgo something else to be able to afford to drop $500 on a small computer. It needs to be sexy, it needs to be different.

Apple understand this, even if sometimes their technique of achieving it involves a little more spin than is perhaps right. They understood that a major step improvement like the switch to their Retina displays would wow customers far more than a gradual series of improvements which meant that the best Android phones already had displays that good.

I'm not a design psychologist and I'm not in marketing (the old definition); my desires, my whims, are geeky to say the least. So what appeals to me may not succeed in the mass market, but I hope that I can convey some of the enthusiasm.

The most conventional of my wishlist features for a tablet is that it have a Pixel Qi display; the technology originally devised for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO-1 devices, refined and improved. Battery life measured in days, a responsive display, high enough resolution to compete with some print, when in black&white mode. Two tablets currently have this; one is not available outside the far east and the other proved to be a disappointment for other reasons.

And of course there's “don't lock down the OS with DRM, let people install the firmware they want” angle, which naturally appeals to me.

Let's move beyond a display which can compete with dedicated ebook readers and look at what would make a tablet just So Much Better.

Control. Why do modern tablets not have infra-red (IR) emitters on the front, so that they can control mass media devices? With an IR emitter or two and the built-in bluetooth, I should be able to control anything in my home from a tablet. Add RF. If serious, add XBee support. I can currently use a Logitech Harmony remote to control most of my media center, the household fans, and more. I should be able to do all of that from a touch-screen control app, and control the PS3 too, and know that I can control any piece of electronics, without wires, from the device I hold in my hands.

Vision. Why do we get just a race of megapixels? I want better. Why is everything visible spectrum? Imagine if you could hold up your tablet and see on it a colour rendering of what's beyond it, in the infra-red spectrum? And UV? Imagine being a teacher taking children on a school trip and being able to show them the flowers with colours beyond the human visible spectrum, to appeal to other creatures? Imagine if the tablet also has a thermocouple thermometer and can tell the current temperature and calibrate IR from that, and show the people in camera range and highlight those running a temperature? I for one would like to be able to protest being seated next to an ill person on an airplane, while such a device would be de rigeur for the medical profession.

And just using it for night-vision, that might not be useful for most people, but it would sure make me go “wow!”. Besides, I could use it to stumble around the bedroom without having to shine a light and wake my wife. (Downside, criminals could use it too).

Radio spectrum scanning, so that I can look around my house and find sources of EM noise and cut them down (replace bulbs, etc)?

Why are there not range-finders? Light and sonar both? And multiple cameras, to take stereoscopic video? Combined with the gyroscopes and other dead-reckoning, it should be possible to move the tablet around an item and build up a CAD model of it; it should be possible to wander around the house and garden and capture everything to a model, so that you can feed it into garden design planning software, and have a model with you at all times so that when you're at the store, you can pull up the references and know how much space there is for a new piece of furniture and whether or not it will fit.

The app developers would start being creative if you have a model which includes light levels, taken at several times of day, and the garden modelling software can start filtering recommended plants for different positions in the garden. Of course, doing that right would involve knowing soil types.

How many lives would be saved if everyone had, in the device they keep charged and with them at all times, a carbon monoxide detector? Just that, would show the potential for interacting with the world in more than vision and sound. If the tablet had a standard interface for plugging into its protective sleeve (perhaps USB, with a pass-thru?), and the sleeve vendors started touting the extra sensors they include? Imagine if a fire-marshall could wander around the run-down apartment building and find various risks that would be time-consuming and expensive to do manually; how many lives would be saved each year?

Others would use a sleeve which is a little thicker and embeds the guts of a voltmeter. Imagine if your tablet were also an oscilloscope? Able to measure sounds from the mics, voltages, and more?

Why are microphones limited mostly to the human hearing range? What if you could point your tablet at the car and have the app from your car manufacturer detect engine knocking? Heck, cars have diagnostic ports, surely someone has USB<->diag cables, so sponsoring just the first car manufacturer's interface for a new app and letting people look at their cars, get excited about them as gear-heads as used to be so common, would surely lead to most manufacturers suddenly cooperating and wanting to be supported? And if your tablet, in its sleeve, alerted you to your exhaust needing attention?

If the infra-red camera and the microphones could aim at a human and detect breathing problems and a higher than normal heat emission from an internal organ and say "yes, there's enough different from normal here that you would not be wasting anyone's time by going to see a doctor". Although handling false negatives without getting sued would have to be handled carefully; there's a ramp-up process in getting enough data to be useful. In the meantime, imagine if the nurse triaging walk-ins and juggling handling seven problems at once could have their attention drawn to the person going quietly into shock.

Imagine the popular sales if you talk to the people who make those ghost hunting TV shows, find out what they measure, and make sure that you cover the right frequencies for all of those, so that anyone could install an app and become a ghost hunter? Who would buy more, the believers or the skeptics? I think I've probably included all the sensor types above already.

Why are there never camera lenses to look closer on phones and tablets? Imagine if you could just pique peoples' curiosity enough for some of them to buy real microscopes?

The world around us is wondrous. It is amazing. It is dangerous. We humans have limited senses. Why do we not improve on what we can do, and improve on the how we deal with it, instead of just trying to take better pictures, record a conversation, and play a few games?

I don't know all the things, all the apps, people would create, given those sensors to play with.

Sure, many of them would be derivative, but we already have app stores boasting about their numbers without pointing out the 30 different alarm clock apps from one vendor, each a different colour and so a different app? Repeated as a pattern across multiple vendors. (I'm serious, that's what I encountered when I wanted to install an alarm clock for my wife on her iPad).

But many would not be derivative. We'd open the world back up to exploration by those who've forgotten about analogue tools. We'd integrate more. We'd show more. We'd control more.

I don't know about you, but I'd spend way more for a 7" or 10" tablet with all of those, than the current asking price of an iPad. Because I'd be going “wow” and budgetting for an early birthday present to myself.


Phil P
MicroUSB on a short flexible but durable cable, retracting inside a small section of the sleeve.
IR: it's an extra component (drives prices up), and it's seen as "boring old analogue" tech rather than "shiny new digital". Same reason you can't get IR on phones (smart or otherwise) any more.

Vision: because that's what the guys in the far east are building. But also, again, because it would increase the component cost; a tablet is already very expensive (some of the cost being justified), and anything that puts the price up even further will hurt sales. The form factor means that you can't plug in expansion cards for the things you actually want, the way you can in a proper computer.

Your sleeve approach might work better, but Apple would never go for it (Apple likes only Apple to be able to sell peripherals that work with Apple) and the Android vendors wouldn't standardise connector locations.

(Software for cars is EYEWATERINGLY EXPENSIVE because the car makers like it that way.)

What I want from a tablet: lots of ports, and the ability to run an honest Linux rather than iOS or Android.
Categories: tablet innovation Android