It’s not often you come across a device that looks like it came straight off a movie set. But Lenovo’s Project Crystal, which is supposed to be the world’s first laptop with a transparent microLED display, is an example of science fiction come to life.

There are currently no plans to make Project Crystal a retail product. Instead, Lenovo’s latest concept device was commissioned by the ThinkPad division to explore the potential of transparent microLED panels and AI integration. The most obvious use case would be sharing information somewhere like a doctor’s office or hotel desk. Instead of having to flip the screen around, you can simply flip the display through software, allowing whoever is on the other side to see it while receiving an in-depth explanation.

When combined with the camera built into the back of the system, Lenovo says there could be possible AR applications. One example would be to use the camera to identify an object, similar to Google Lens. And with its transparent display, it should be possible to take this idea a step further by overlaying a diagram or schematic onto the object for things like troubleshooting or repair.

But the best thing about Project Crystal is that Lenovo bothered to make it at all. Right now, even standard microLED displays are prohibitively expensive with these panels usually reserved for cutting-edge gadgets like Samsung’s The Wall or Apple’s Vision Pro. And transparent versions are only seen as concepts like the transparent microLED TV that Samsung showed off a few months ago at CES 2024.

Personally, the transparency effect is confusing. When closed or when its display is off, Project Crystal’s screen looks almost like a simple piece of glass with a slight brownish tint. But at one point the whole thing lights up like a battleship. Rated brightness goes up to 1,000 nits, with Lenovo saying peaks can reach 3,000 nits, which would make it brighter than the new Galaxy S24 family. And despite being made of multiple layers, the panel is extremely thin, helping to blur the line between the digital and analog worlds. Lenovo says it’s also considering adding some kind of contrast layer so it can turn into a traditional opaque display at the push of a button. However, for a relatively large 16-inch display, its resolution isn’t super high, so if you look closely, you can see individual pixels.

Another design twist is that instead of a traditional keyboard, the Project Crystal includes one of Lenovo’s touchscreen replacements, similar to those found on older Yoga Books. Unfortunately, it still suffers from many of the same problems. The most obvious example of this is your hands drifting off while typing because there is no tactile feedback, resulting in reduced accuracy. Lenovo says AI may be able to address this in the future by learning a person’s typing habits and then using that information to account for your hands deviating from the starting line. But right now it’s still a problem.

While there may not be many important use cases for a transparent display, the technology is pretty stunning live.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

The rest of the laptop is also a work in progress. I only saw two ports in the entire system, which would be a big omission for such a large notebook. Project Crystal was also based on a last-generation processor, while other components like its hinge were so weak that its screen threatened to close every time it was tilted below 90 degrees. And for some reason, the laptop seems to build up static as it sometimes shocks people who touch its display.

Project Crystal is a solution in search of a problem. A problem that exists in niche situations and may be an issue worth pursuing more seriously in the future. But more importantly, it challenges us to think about what’s possible with emerging display technology and how it might fit into a laptop of the future.

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