Year's coolest computer display is made from a soap bubble

Ultrasound lets designers change exture, transparency, brightness to make any image look its best

Computer technology is supposed to get smaller and lighter, so new generations of displays that are astonishingly bright, clear and light may be a delight, but they're no surprise – except when they are.

The biggest surprise of the year in computer displays isn't a monitor that folds or rolls up (although it can do both those things); it's a high-resolution, three-dimensional display made from a soap bubble.

Actually the bubble isn't soap. It's a mix of two colloids (sub-microscopic particles evenly distributed within a fluid) that display consistent Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function (BRDF) characteristics.

What that means is that the material becomes opaque or reflective enough with the right stimulus to accurately display images projected on it.

The bubble display is is the brainchild of Yoichi Ochiai, a media artist, designer and graduate student at the University of Tokyo, who designed it as a demonstration of how to create a controllable BRDF-supporting display using fluids with specific characteristics. He and the other bubble designers will present their display in August at Siggraph 2012 in Los Angeles.

The "Colloidal Display" image comes from a single projector that sprays an image onto a small, round bubble in a thick frame while stabilizers bombard the bubble with ultrasonics that control the amount of transparency and reflectivity in the bubble itself.

Without the ultrasonics, variations in both would make it difficult to see a clear image in the bubble, according to the description from Oichiai and team member Alexis Oyama.

The ultrasonics also let designers change the characteristics of the display itself – something that's impossible with traditional materials.

Changing ultrasonic controls can make one layer of display more transparent than another and create a different texture on a third, allowing designers to combine layers of display like the layers of imagery in a Photoshop document.

Ultimately it creates an adaptable, inexpensive, highly customizable display that can be touched, penetrated and whose visual characteristics can be tuned to match the optimum requirements any new image and be used in ways most displays can't, according to the designers.

Using the right size and shape of frame, for example, the flexible colloids could display a lifelike image of almost anything.

They could also be used for high-impact graphical images in museums and other venues in which giant, potentially frameless displays layer new images on old ones that are still visible through the transparent surface of the new image.

"Museums could display floating planets using this technology," Oyama told New Scientist.

The Colloidal Display is still a concept, not an actual thing, but it's a concept with a lot of potential, almost unlimited capacity for tuning and customization and a much higher cool quotient than whatever flat-panel thing Apple is shipping these days.

Displays made out of solids instead of fluids are so passé.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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