Peering through Lenovo’s transparent laptop into a sci-fi future

A year after flexing its R&D muscles with a rollable laptop that expanded its screen with a simple button push, Lenovo is back at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. with another, somehow even more sci-fi, concept device. This is the ThinkBook Transparent Display Laptop, a 17.3-inch notebook with a screen you can peer straight through.

The key draw is its bezelless 17.3-inch MicroLED display, which offers up to 55 percent transparency when its pixels are set to black and turned off. But as its pixels light up the display becomes less and less see-through, until eventually you’re looking at a completely opaque white surface with a peak brightness of 1000 nits.

Although the appeal of transparent screens in sci-fi films and TV shows is obvious (opaque screens are boring, actor’s faces are interesting), it’s a lot harder to put your finger on their practical uses in real life. How often, of course, do you actually want to see the empty desk behind your laptop? Would it be beneficial to be able to see your colleague sitting across from you, or would it be distracting?

Lenovo’s demo used AI object recognition to identify items placed behind the laptop.

Of course, the transparency works both ways.

One of Lenovo’s big ideas is that the form-factor could be useful for digital artists, helping them to see the world behind the laptop’s screen while sketching it on the lower half of the laptop, where the keyboard is (more on this later). “I am not a good artist,” Lenovo’s executive director of ThinkPad portfolio and product Tom Butler admits to me in an interview, “but I can bring something behind and I can trace it.” In the room we’re sitting in that means pulling a bunch of sunflowers behind the laptop screen, but Butler pitches the idea of an architect being able to sit on location and sketch a building without taking their eyes off the environment in front of them. He even goes as far as to call the transparent laptop display a form of augmented reality. 

Lenovo is the latest in a long line of companies to experiment with transparent displays. Samsung showed off a transparent laptop concept over a decade ago at CES 2010, and even Lenovo itself exhibited a transparent smartphone concept in 2015 via its now-defunct Zuk Mobile subsidiary. But as time’s gone on we’ve seen some early attempts to commercialize the technology. Transparent screens have cropped us as shop displays, and as train carriage windows in China and Japan, and LG says it actually plans to ship its OLED Signature T transparent TV this year.

But there are some specific challenges with building a transparent display into a laptop. Most notable is resolution, which is more important on a laptop designed to show text than a TV designed to show images. That, incidentally, is why Lenovo tells me Lenovo went for a MicroLED panel over an OLED. Although the 17.3-inch display in this concept is only 720p, AG Zheng, Lenovo’s executive director of SMB product and solutions, tells me that going with an OLED would have limited them to a resolution as low as 480p. 720p still feels like a very work-in-progress spec on a 17.3-inch laptop like this, but at least text shown on the screen during my demo was perfectly readable.

When fully white, the screen turns opaque (and hard to photograph).

A small camera on the back of the concept laptop’s base is responsible for its its object recognition abilities.

Another sign that this is a work in progress? It’s not possible on Lenovo’s current prototype to manually set the whole laptop screen to be opaque, regardless of whether it’s showing white content, black content, or any colors in between. “That absolutely is something that we would want if we were going into production,” Butler says. It’s something that LG is using contrast film to achieve on its OLED T television.

As well as the transparent display, Lenovo’s laptop concept also has a completely flat touch keyboard, rather than a physical keyboard with keys you can feel and press. When images of this device first started leaking, I assumed this was meant as just another sci-fi flourish, but it’s actually part of Lenovo’s pitch for artists. That’s because as well as functioning like a keyboard, the laptop’s base is also designed to work as a drawing tablet. 

When detached from the concept laptop, it’s easier to see the projected keyboard appear and disappear.

The keyboard that you can see on the laptop is actually a projection, which disappears when you bring a stylus close to the drawing surface, or even when you step away from the laptop entirely. Then you’re left with a flat surface to sketch on, similar to what you’d find in a screen-less Wacom tablet.

The downside is that when you’re not sketching you have to use the completely flat surface as a touch-sensitive keyboard, which was definitely the weakest element of the prototype device. It will not surprise you to hear that this mechanical keyboard fan didn’t love stabbing his fingers at an image of a keyboard, and I made endless typos in my attempt to write a simple test sentence.

This being 2024, there was also an AI element to Lenovo’s demonstration. The company had set up a small camera on the rear side of the laptop’s chassis to perform object recognition on devices placed behind it. The results of this could then be shown onscreen while it was still in full view. Put sunflowers behind the laptop and it’d identify them as such, display some information, and show a butterfly flying around them. Put a small model of coral and you see a fish. It was very proof of concept stuff.

The concept laptop’s keyboard is about as frustrating to type on as you’d expect…

… but it makes more sense as a drawing tablet.

Like its rollable laptop from last year, Lenovo isn’t pretending that it has any plans to release its ThinkBook Transparent Display Laptop as a consumer device. But Butler says he has “very high confidence” that its technologies will make it into a real laptop in the next five years, and hopes that revealing this proof of concept will start a public conversation about what it could be useful for, setting a target for Lenovo to work towards.

More so than its rollable laptop with its simple pitch of “more screen with the flip of a switch”, Lenovo’s transparent laptop concept feels like a collection of cool technologies in search of a killer app. Sketching something placed behind the laptop screen is interesting but feels like a niche use case even among digital artists you can always just snap a photo and trace that and Lenovo’s AI demo feels like something you’d see a museum use to make an exhibit more visually interesting.

Until Lenovo finds its killer use case, we’re left with an exceptionally cool-looking device that’s capable of some fun novelties. Halfway through my interview I pulled my (decidedly non-transparent) MacBook’s screen forward to double check my phone behind it, and Butler leapt on it immediately.

“You just perfectly walked into that.”

Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge

By 111 Tech

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