Displair shows a misty glimpse into the future of interactive displays

Touching an actual screen is so 2004. In the near-future, we all might be pinching, sliding, and tapping the same air we breath.

Displair showed off its new screen-technology at the annual Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. The device itself, a base the size of a paper-shredder, looks fairly pedestrian when off. Turn it on and you’re staring at an image suspended in air—in fact, light is reflecting on tiny water molecules, blown upwards from the base’s narrow opening. Reach your hand into the picture and your fingers interact with it just as they would on a multi-touch capacitive display. CES is host to all sorts of doodads and gadget-magic; this one had the biggest whiff of Willy Wonka.

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But this lanky scientist doesn’t have a sweet tooth. Maxim Kaminin, inventor and CEO of Displair, might be more prone to sip Smirnoff. (Or, given his company’s aspirations, perhaps a Russo-Baltique.) Kaminin hails from Astrakhan, Russia, just north of the Caspian Sea. The city was founded in 1558, two years after Ivan the Terrible swept into town. That a potential disruption in screen technology comes from the Old World, half a world away from Silicon Valley, it makes sense that the material in question is of the natural world: water, light, and air.

The company’s slogan is, “Play with air.” But will Displair actually prove better than Apple’s Retina Display, or Panasonic’s plasma? Various CES attendees flailed their arms through a misty rendition of Halfbrick’s Fruit Ninja. And though benefits are apparent—no smudges! You can use a wooden staff!—there was a noticeable lag. Oh, and the first units, available later this year, will cost around $10,000.

Still, you can squint your eyes and see the future. High Definition displays have not only yielded a sharper image, but given developers the ability to do things they previously couldn’t: throw more enemies on screen at once, draw more nuanced backgrounds requiring an observant eye, allowed for a zoomed-out view of a large environment. Sometimes technology is devised to implement an idea—the Oculus Rift will make good on the notion of VR helmets hypothesized for decades—but more often technology simply makes new ideas possible. The best games are those that harness these advances.

After Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros saw what CD-ROM could do at a tech conference in 1989, they aspired to bring movie-quality video to a field dominated by pixelated stick-figures. Three years later, their title The 7th Guest would change people’s expectations of what games could do.

This year, a swell of disruptive technology will edge closer to becoming consumer reality. Between 4K Ultra HD displays, the aforementioned Rift, Google’s augmented reality goggles, and now Displair, game creators will have a host of canvas to consider. Will any of them open the eyes of some fledgling developer to create something new and unexpected? Maxim Kaminin hopes so.