Interesting New Tablets from Sony

Sony announced some new tablet designs today to stir the visions of our collective tablet dreams: a sleek airfoil slate design, and a dual-screen tablet that intrigues as well.

The Sony Tablet S airfoil slate design

First off I have to say that I love the industrial design of the Tablet S slate, an asymmetric foldback airfoil-like design straight out of a smarter future. I can’t speak to the build quality, since I haven’t held one in my hands (and the comments and video posted on Engadget seem to call this into question), but I love that Sony’s designers have stepped away from the me-too design mentality of pancake slate designs: flat, thin, and boring.

I’ve held other asymmetric design concept devices for slates in my hands, though, and they offer a number of distinct advantages (even if all of them aren’t fully realized in Sony’s current offering due to its thickness). The off-kilter weight distribution seems like a bad idea at first, but when you grasp one you quickly realize that this makes a slate much more comfortable and less fatiguing to hold with a single hand. All the weight rests in your strong hand, and by virtue of accelerometer-based automatic screen rotation, you can flip it over to your other hand any time you feel like you need a break (and of course this accommodates left-handers as well).

The wedge-shaped profile of the slate also means that it’s canted just a few degrees towards you when you set it down on a tabletop. This makes the screen easier to read, and easier to interact with as well. Whenever I use my iPad (a passe generation-one model that seems oh-so-2010 by now) on a table I resent that I have to lean way forward to look straight down on it, or go grab a book or, more likely at my kitchen table, a folded-up dish towel (hopefully one without too much little-kiddo goop all over it)  to prop up the thing. And yeah, I know the case lets you prop it up, but it’s pretty flimsy and floppy.

Image credit: Engadget

The other thing that I like about the Tablet S design is they way it’s recessed on the ends (see photo above). Not only does this highlight the sleek curve of the design, and create an immediate emotional connection with the familiar shape of a glossy folded-over magazine, but it also tucks all the extra buttons and controls out of sight. But perhaps even more significant than the resulting aesthetics, this design also places the buttons out of the way of fumbling fingers so that you don’t hit them by accident when you hold or reposition the tablet.

Now if only we could design touch screens smart enough to recognize when I’ve brushed them by mistake.

The dual-screen Sony Tablet P

Any of you who’ve been following me for a while know that I have been a big advocate of dual-screen designs in the past, and have even conducted original research to explore the possibilities of such form-factors.

To be honest the industrial design on the Tablet P seems a little clumsy– it’s a little too thick, and the curved contour on the top screen doesn’t match the bottom and seems to make it a little harder to handle (in the video below, you can see that the device keeps sliding around on the table as the person interacts with it).

But Sony’s software demos for the device show a glimmering of understanding of how to leverage two interconnected screens to their best advantage. They have several demos that partition UI controls from content (video playback on top, play/pause/fast-forward controls on the bottom; video game on top, game controls on the bottom; text on top, touchscreen keyboard on bottom; and so forth). Perhaps the most interesting of the lot is the brief glimpse of an email client that we see with the text of the current message on one screen and the scrolling list of messages on the other screen.

There’s only one demo that uses the screens in portrait orientation, that of an e-book reader, which leverages the two-screened aesthetic perfectly, although the page flip animation in the current demo software leaves much to be desired (it’s an animation that takes time to play, and to my eye at least only serves to confuse, rather than guiding the eye gently through the transition to the new pages.)

The industrial design does have one nice property: the hinge design pivots the screens so that they are very close to one anther when the device is opened, and there is no raised screen bezel, so you can slide your fingers across the two screens without hitting a speed bump in the middle.

Check out the Engadget coverage of the Tablet P for more details.

Conclusion and a Reflection on the Future

The Sony Tablet S and Tablet P, whether or not they are a success in the marketplace, are good examples of the proliferation of the design space of slates, handhelds, and booklet devices. There are some really exciting possibilities opening up here with continued advances in electronics and materials science– as well as the application of good old-fashioned design chops– and it makes me wonder what the devices held by my grandkids will look like.

And in my mind, at least, when I am visited by these visions of the near future, they aren’t just ho-hum pancaked layers of plastic, silicon, and glass any longer, but rather they take flight on the fancies of mad geometers and crazed topologists, digital displays contorted and multiplied into a gleaming sculpture of the human potential.

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