Have you ever stopped to wonder why we seem to have such an infatuation with curvy things?
Why do we think that a curved smartphone or TV is better than the planar version? Why did we go gaga for the Nexus S, which had a curve that can probably be measured in fractions of a millimeter?
Why has the highlight of CES for two years running been a curved Samsung or LG TV? According to some neuroaestheticists (my new favorite word), it has nothing to do with improved functionality, or even some kind of rational response — it seems our brains are just hard coded to find curvy things more beautiful.
The fledgling field of neuroaesthetics, as the name implies, tries to understand our appreciation of beauty in physiological and neurological terms. When you see or experience something that is beautiful, there’s a very definite physiological response in certain regions of your brain.
Thanks to the recent emergence of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it is relatively easy to show someone a photo of something — and if it’s beautiful, your orbitofrontal cortex (right behind your eyes, pretty much) and anterior cingulate cortex (just behind the orbitofronto) will light up. It’s a little bit more complex than that, and neuroaesthetics is still in its very early days, but you get the gist.
According to NewScientist, there have been at least two studies that used an fMRI to compare the beauty of curved and straight objects. Oshin Vartanian at the University of Toronto asked participants to look at photos of household interiors — and sure enough, rooms with curved features rated much higher in terms of both pleasantness and beauty [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1301227110].
In another study, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, participants looked at objects with straight and curved outlines — and fMRI again showed an aesthetic preference for curves.
Now, none of this probably comes as a surprise. Humans like curvy things. Technology, however, until very recently, has been resolutely hard, flat, and square.
This is mostly because the components inside your computer are also rectilinear, and so usually it’s just more space efficient to use a rectangular chassis. Most components — chips, circuit boards, batteries, displays — really don’t like to be flexed, either, and so again it makes sense to put them inside a rigid box. As a result, almost every computer ever built has been some kind of cuboid.
Really, if you compare an original room-sized mainframe against, say, the Surface Pro 3, all we’ve really done is take a big cuboid and shrink it down into a much smaller one.
Over the last couple of years, however, our mastery of materials and electronics has finally got to the point where we can start to create curved and flexible devices.
We’re still only talking a millimeter or two in the case of smartphones like the Galaxy Round, or a few centimeters in the case of large TV — but thanks to things like Corning’s flexible Willow glass and flexible OLED displays, we’re slowly getting there. There is also some evidence to suggest that curved displays actually look better, too, as they reduce the impact of reflections.
The next step — the development of totally flexible displays, circuitry, and batteries – probably won’t take more than a couple of years. Before you know it, our computers will be as curvy as our cars. Hooray.