Despite their portability and popularity, the slab of glass form factor of tablets has its downsides. Most notably for the less coordinated among us is the propensity for the display to crack or shatter when dropped. A team at Canada’s Queen’s University working in collaboration with Intel Labs and Plastic Logic is looking not only to redefine the tablet's form, but the way people use them with the development of a flexible touchscreen computer called the PaperTab.

The PaperTab features plastic transistor technology developed by Plastic Logic that we’ve previously seen in that company’s Plastic Logic Reader and QUE ProReader. With Plastic Logic having now turned from manufacturing its own e-Readers to partnering with other companies, the PaperTab is powered by a second generation Intel core i5 processor and boasts a 10.7-inch, high resolution E-ink touchscreen display that is flexible, shatterproof and looks and feels like a sheet of paper.

Aside from the paper-like form factor, the PaperTab is also designed to be used differently from a conventional tablet. Rather than switching between apps on a single display, multiple PaperTabs are designed to be used at once with each one acting as a window for separate applications, while still interacting with each other. The interface the team has developed is designed to enable the device (or devices) to replace a computer monitor and the stacks of printouts that still clutter most offices.

Using an electromagnetic tracker, each PaperTab can keep track of its location relative to other PaparTabs and the user so that the display changes dynamically based on its position. For example, PaperTabs placed out of reach of the user revert to a thumbnail view of a document and switch back to a full screen page view when picked up. Additionally, documents can be opened on one display by touching a document icon on another, while photos on one device can be attached to an email composed on another by touching the two devices together.

A larger display area can be created by simply placing two or more PaperTabs next to each other with objects able to be dragged across multiple displays. While the device features a touchscreen, users can also navigate documents by bending the display in various ways.

“Using several PaperTabs makes it much easier to work with multiple documents,” says Roel Vertegaal, Director of Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab. “Within five to ten years, most computers, from ultra-notebooks to tablets, will look and feel just like these sheets of printed color paper.”

The PaperTab is still some way off commercial availability, but paper thin, flexible tablets, whether made using Plastic Logic’s plastic transistor technology, flexible OLEDs or something else, are likely to be the next big thing in the evolution of tablet computing technology. We’ll be taking a closer look at the PaperTab in its current form at CES 2013 – stay tuned.

The PaperTab and the interface designed for it are demonstrated in the video below.

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