There is the impossible-to-remember name. There is the fact that a notebook — rather than a tablet or smaller mobile device — was used to debut a new screen technology. Is there evidence of anyone using a notebook for experimenting with screens?
But by far the oddest part is the new technology itself: “The world's first glasses-free 3D notebook PC.” The Dynabook Qosmio T851/D8CR is apparently the first computer “able to display 3D and 2D content at the same time on one screen.” A dramatic technological advance, certainly. It's not clear what prompted Toshiba to develop it, however.
Toshiba hasn't explained what exactly it thinks consumers would do with the device. Developers would enjoy opportunities to experiment, and video game developers could presumably mix 3D scenes with text information, space ships with their controls, dragons with their vital signs, or what-have-you. Scientists might be able to mix 3D diagrams with video conferencing. Bored office workers could toggle between pretending to do their work, and watching downloads of Avatar in 3D.
That's what Toshiba expects. It sees a market for people who are willing to pay in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars to take multi-tasking to another dimension. With the 3D/2D screen, you’ll be able to “watch high-quality 3D images or enjoy 3D games in one window without any need for wearing dedicated glasses or installing a dedicated panel over the display, while at the same time working, browsing the internet or sending e-mail in another window,” the company says.
What’s not clear is why Toshiba thinks 3D laptops are the bet to make right now. Product innovation, and predicting consumer demand for innovations, is an imprecise science, but at first glance, Toshiba’s technology sounds mostly useful for generating headaches. Will developers really create split-screen 3D versions of games, for example, just for this one device? Do we see evidence of developers doing so already for LG's Optimus 3D phone, and its cousin, the Optimus tablet, released two months ago? It's not so clear we are.
On one hand, many early reviews of the iPad said something similar two years ago, and consumers ignored them. And the iPad 2 itself could be moving that technology in a 3D direction. But with these technologies, there's a feeling of the tail wagging the dog. On the other hand, consumer behavior seems to suggest that what people want are simple things that are cheaper and reliable. For example, a below-$20 smartphone for sale in parts of the world with huge populations and enormous potential demand for handsets, but where customers have little disposable income.
If tablet sales really do jump 400 percent this year, that will be a result of their small size, low price compared to a computer, and utility for doing everything from making a phone call to reading a book. The statistics we have suggest a market for doing fewer things well at a reasonable price. Not for doing peculiar things poorly, on a platform that could be dying.
Laptops aren't science — that's the message the market seems to be sending. They are tools, not objects of research. Which could mean Toshiba knows something, and people really do want a half-3D laptop as a tool for performing tasks or enjoying entertainment yet to be invented. But it's more likely Toshiba's making a bet, during a recession, on a technology with no apparent market and no apparent content.
And that makes me wonder: Do we start up a supply chain for technologies that seem only to exist because they can? And when those chains collapse, who pays?