Friday New Tools Feature: The Future of... Literacy?

Normally, I don't tend to get all that excited about CAD renders and tech specs of hypothetical technology. Today is an exception: a company called Notion Ink has just unveiled a tablet that looks like it could be a real game-changer, and it will supposedly appear in real life at CES in January. The tablet boasts a number of features that made my geek sense go off, like an efficient Tegra chipset that will run Android. However, the biggest thing is undoubtedly the screen, made by a little-heard-of company called Pixel Qi, which may be a household name not so long from now.

Here's why it's such a big deal. The screen combines traditional LCD technology with the readability and great power efficiency of e-ink (the technology used in devices like the Kindle and Nook). According to Pixel Qi (pronounced "Chee," it's also a great Scrabble word), here's what the screen can do:

The readability and legibility of our new screens rival the best epaper available today.  What's new about our screens: fast video rate update (refresh), and fully saturated color at low pricing because we use standard manufacturing materials, processes and factories.  Our screens use 1/2 to 1/4 the power of a regular LCD screen, and when integrated carefully with the device can increase battery life between charges by 5-fold. You can use our screens in laptops outside in bright sunlight.

I think this is a huge next step for the e-book industry, and for e-publications in general. I like my Kindle, but it is still clearly a first-generation device, and while the reading experience is good, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of versatility. The Nook is basically the same thing, with a small color screen used for navigation at the bottom. On the other hand, tablet computers offer color, video and a richer user experience, but their backlit screens are not ideal for reading long chunks of text. Something like the Entourage Edge, which has one e-ink screen and one LCD screen, seemed like an acceptable compromise, but clearly a short-term fix. 

That is why the Pixel Qi screen technology is such a big deal. In addition to greatly expanding battery life and reducing power consumption (Notion Ink claims their tablet will last 40 hours in standby reading mode, which I believe since I've had to charge my Kindle ONCE since owning it), it allows for the good things about both technologies to be combined into one touch-screen. While e-ink effectively reproduces the experience of reading a book, that seems to me to be a rather limited goal. Have a look at this concept, from the publishers of Popular Science, of what reading a periodical on a tablet might look like:

It is my hope that this technology will make reading "cool" again, and potentially make difficult texts more accessible - imagine reading something by Adorno or Habermas or Agamben, something that you might normally need a teacher to help walk you through. But you're reading it on a tablet, so anywhere you get confused, you can tap and get the Wikipedia definition of the concept, or see a video explanation with diagrams. Late consumer capitalism may not yet spell the demise of real literacy - it could, in fact, ultimately usher in its revival. 

Of course, we might also just get People Magazine with moving celebrity body parts, but I'd rather look at the positive potential.