Bringing ancient scrolls into the touchscreen age

2 min read

Canadian researchers unveil MagicScreen, the first rollable touchscreen tablet that combines flexible display technology with gesture control

In what has become known as his seminal Sprawl Trilogy, Canadian-American science fiction author William Gibson envisaged a display screen that could unroll from a tiny computer. Written in the early 1980s, it appeared hopelessly futuristic: Gibson didn’t even imagine that it would be responsive to touch, as we take for granted with display screens today. Researchers from the human media lab (HML) at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario have now turned Gibson’s idea into reality with the MagicScroll – a flexible touchscreen display that can roll up and unroll.

MagicScreen in use, showing a navigation app in fullscreen mode

Like Gibson’s idea, the Queen’s team has taken inspiration from one of the earliest forms of written communication: the ancient scroll. Originating in ancient Egypt, scrolls are a highly efficient way of displaying information. They can be unrolled completely to show their full content, or scanned by unrolling one spindle while simultaneously rerolling the other, keeping their form compact. This was the way that they were used in ancient China and Japan to display artwork in a long strip that was meant to be unrolled slowly. Such action at one end could be seen to continue to the other (known as handscrolls, these were arguably the forerunners of today’s comic strips and even animated films). With the advent of flexible screens based on organic LED (OLED) technology, the HML team, led by Roel Vertegaal, who pioneered research into flexible displays in the early 2000s, decided to try to revive this form of information perusal.

“We were inspired by the design of ancient scrolls because their form allows for a more natural, uninterrupted experience of long visual timelines,” Vertegaal said. “Another source of inspiration was the old rolodex filing systems that were used to store and browse contact cards.” As much of today’s information retrieval can involve scrolling through long lists, for example email messages, social media posts or contact databases, the HML team thought that a scroll device would be a useful way of handling such content.

The device is composed of a 7½ inch (19 cm) 2K resolution OLED display, which the team made by splicing together two 5½ inch (12 cm) multitouch flexible OLEDs from LG G Flex smartphones. This was mounted onto a purpose-built holder containing spindles attached to robotic actuators that would allow the screen to be unrolled to a specific point, for example when the device receives a message notification. The holder also contains a camera that allows the device to be used as a gesture-based control, like the remote handheld controller is used with the Nintendo Wii gaming system. In rolled form, the device is compact enough to fit into a pocket and can be used as a telephone, dictation device or pointer. However, the screen can also be unrolled to its full extent so the device can be used like a tablet.

exploded view of the MagicScreen device.(1) 3D printed body; (2) magnet inserts; (3) Flexible OLED displays; (4) Magnetic locking mechanism; (5) Android boards; (6) Gearmotor and magnetic encoder; (7) External connectors and power buttons; (8) 3D printed gear box; (9) Scrollwheel.

“Eventually, our hope is to design the device so that it can even roll into something as small as a pen that you could carry in your shirt pocket,” said Dr Vertegaal. “More broadly, the MagicScroll project is also allowing us to further examine notions that ‘screens don’t have to be flat’ and ‘anything can become a screen’. Whether it’s a reusable cup made of an interactive screen on which you can select your order before arriving at a coffee-filling kiosk, or a display on your clothes, we’re exploring how objects can become the apps.”

HML researcher Juan Pablo Carrascal is to present a paper on MagicScroll at a human-computer interaction conference in Barcelona next week. William Gibson was not available for comment as this story was being prepared.

See it in action here: