There are certain cities around the world where it’s possible to learn about tomorrow’s technology as it’s being developed today. Tokyo — still — offers the most tightly integrated infrastructure, where smooth, technology-driven experiences take place when engaging in everyday actions, such as verifying personal identity, paying for goods, and buying tickets. Nairobi is an excellent destination for mobile banking. San Francisco is the center for startup thinking (and doing). And Seoul is the destination for the newest electronic displays, a place where you can immediately get immersed in daring new screen technologies. As we rely more on our smart phones, laptops, and tablet computers to acquire and share information, as we develop sharper and more interactive large-scale electronic signs in stores, on streets, and on billboards, it’s worthwhile to look to a city that offers glimpses into the future of global screen culture.
Why turn to Seoul? South Korea is home to LG and Samsung, local manufacturers that are also the top international leaders in screen technology and sales. In Seoul, there is also a rich willingness to experiment with new devices. Even in the most mundane of corner convenience stores today, you can find numerous, significantly-sized electronic displays at each cash register instead of cardboard advertisements for gum or candy, or small, credit- or debit-card swiping devices with tiny, text-only screens. And by 2015, the South Korean government ambitiously plans to substitute all books in schools with screens; tablet computers will replace paper within four years.
Even back in 2005, Seoul’s forward-thinking screen culture was evident. I remember traveling to a research interview on the subway. At one moment, I thought I was looking at a print poster — it had the same crisp images and colors, and it wasn’t moving, but suddenly the imagery changed. It was a wonderful example of something you take for granted (posters don’t move) being wrong (it moves, so you wonder, what else does it do?). I was fascinated by this advanced, instant, and seamless re-calibration of surfaces. It made me wonder, “How will our perceptions of the world shift as every sign we look at moves, when we reach a day where no billboards or street signs are static, when every display we see is dynamic?” I have been going to Seoul every year since to observe high-resolution displays and how they are finding their way into more and more places, offering more and more surprising interactions.
The future sometimes lies in the past, too: in South Korea, there is the centuries-old tradition of Asian screen culture. Think of the beautifully painted analog, yet highly narrative, screens that have adorned homes in that region of the world for generations. Today, screens are being reinvented for the digital age. South Korean companies are developing a new generation of screens that hark back to years and years of paper imagery. The American company e-Ink, for instance, has been working with South Korea’s Neolux, to take the technology used in e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle to huge screens for advertisements used in stores in Asia. The e-Ink tech allows images and text that matches the clarity of printed paper pages to morph nearly instantly. Used on display screens in shopping environments, the tech will not only grab consumers’ eyes, but also provide them with more relevant information as they buy. When such moving, shifting signage takes the place of static text and images throughout the world, it will likely alter the way we navigate through our cities and towns, stores and schools. How will this affect the way we think, how we process information? We will have to look, see, and think more quickly as we react to visual cacophony of street signs and ads that is much more dynamic and competitive for our attention than what we typically encounter today.
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