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The Daylight Tablet Returns Computing to Its Hippie Ideals

May 31, 2024 12:00 PM

The Daylight Tablet Returns Computing to Its Hippie Ideals

Anjan Katta thinks computers and the tech industry became too corporate and straitlaced—so he invented a tablet with a zippy monochrome screen that’s usable outdoors.

A Daylight DC1 tablet laying in tall green grass with a drawn image of foliage on the screen
Courtesy of Daylight Computer Co.

“Do you mind if I hug you?” asks Anjan Katta. This is not the usual way to wrap up a product demo, but given the product and its creator, I wasn’t really surprised. Katta, a shaggy-haired, bearded fellow, he’d shown up to the WIRED office in San Francisco dressed like he was embarking on a summertime mountaintop trek. He had immediately began rhapsodizing about the idealistic early days of personal computers and the amazing figures who produced that magic, knowledge he gathered in part through my writings. And he seemed like the hugging type.

The device Katta pulls out of his backpack—an electronic-ink-style tablet called the Daylight DC1—is very much a reflection of its creator, a spiritual object driven more by ideals than commerce. “It’s almost trying to bring back the hippie into personal computing,” he says, bemoaning the loss of that spirit. “It's been replaced by shareholders—what's happened to that bicycle-for-the-mind idealism?” Katta’s device wants to put us back in that saddle, pulling us out of the mire of unsatisfying empty interactions with our phones and junky apps. All he has to conquer is Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, TikTok, and a public unlikely to take a monochrome gadget that costs more than $700 out for a spin. No wonder he needs a hug.

Alan Kay, the visionary who imagined the way we’d use portable digital devices, once said that Apple’s Macintosh was the first computer worth criticizing. I think Katta wants to make the first computer worth meditating with. He hopes to join the ranks of early tech heroes by stipulating what Daylight doesn’t do—multitasking, mind-numbing eye candy, or distracting floods of notifications.

Courtesy of Daylight Computer Co.

Instead, the sharp “Live Paper” display quietly refreshes, a page at a time. (Katta’s team worked up its own PDF rending scheme.) The accompanying Wacom pencil lets users scrawl comments and doodles on its surface as easily as they do on their latest Field Notes memo book. Web browsing in monochrome may not have pizzazz, but it seems to lower one’s blood pressure. Daylight strives to be the Criterion Collection of computer hardware, making everything else look like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

To fully understand the Daylight device, look to Katta’s own origin story. He describes himself as “a very ADHD person who’s been a dilettante his entire life.” He was born in Ireland, where his parents had emigrated from India, and then the family moved to a small mining town in Canada. Katta couldn’t speak English well, so he learned about the world from books his father read to him. Even after the family moved to Vancouver and Katta became more socially deft—and discovered an entrepreneurial streak—he retained that wonder. He loved science, games, and books about early computer history. The only college he applied to was Stanford, because it symbolized to him the creativity of Silicon Valley people like Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell. “It was the place where mischief makers were doing cool stuff,” he says. “Stanford was the place where I’d finally be accepted.”

But during the years Katta attended Stanford—2012 to 2016—he became disillusioned. “I expected irreverence and innovation, but it felt like McKinsey-Goldman Sachs banker energy, because you could get rich that way,” he says. While his peers did internships at Google and Facebook, Katta spent summers climbing Kilimanjaro and trekking to Everest base camp. He loved to hang out at the Computer History Museum in nearby Mountain View, soaking up the tales of the early PC pioneers and being appalled by how the narrative of tech had shifted from charming geeks to rapacious bros.

“What happened to everything I read in those books?” he says. “After graduation I was like, Fuck this, and went backpacking for two years.” He wound up back in his parents’ Vancouver basement, massively depressed. Katta stewed for months, reading about science—and fixating on how our devices had turned into what he saw as engines of misery. “They are dopamine slot machines and make us the worst versions of ourselves,” he says.

People kneeling on yellow picnic blankets while using the Daylight DC1 tablet

Daylight computers at a launch event in San Francisco.

Photograph: Michael Calore

Katta got sucked into the maelstrom himself, missing meals and staying up till 4 am, scrolling from one stupid link to the next. One day, in early 2018, he’d had enough, and banned all those cursed devices from his bedroom. With one exception: his Kindle. It might have been a computer but didn’t feel like it. Its non-flickering display hinted to him that it might be possible to make a calm computer, laser-focused on the activities that really mattered—reading, writing, thinking, and synthesizing. The static ink-like technology was the key. “It’s a fat piece of paper,” he says, “For all intents and purposes, it’s an analog object that happens to have digital magical capabilities.” But the E Ink technology that powers the Kindle couldn’t really support the fast responses and rich dynamic graphics that Katta had in mind.

That led to years of research and experimentation at first on his own, and later with two collaborators. “I became obsessed with screens,” he says. He self-funded his efforts, burning through $300,000, all the cash he’d accumulated over the years from selling phone cases and other hustles. “No one believed me—they asked how I could solve this when no one else has,” he says. One underappreciated advance he found was a version of e-paper that had powered an early Gameboy device. He also came across academic papers from the Netherlands, Germany, Florida, and especially one penned by a professor in Japan, whom he visited and wound up working with. Eventually, he had a prototype with what he now calls a Live Paper display, running at an impressive 60 frames per second, a pace that makes graphics look alive. And of course, it looks great in daylight.

(By the way, this is a big week for minimalist displays, as the French company Ledger finally shipped Stax, the well overdue credit-card-sized hardware wallet meant to safely store currency, NFTs, and other digital goods with unprecedented ease. The long delayed arrival of the “iPod of crypto” was due to the challenges of implementing the breakthrough curved E Ink spine on the device.)

With prototype in hand, Katta was able to woo $12 million in funding from angel investors, including current and former executives of companies like Oculus, Pinterest, and Dropbox. Daylight has almost sold out its first run of 5,000 devices. But Katta suspects that even his funders might not think that Daylight will succeed. “I don’t want to demean ourselves, but they invested almost out of charity,” says Katta. “They’re like, ‘This is so hard to do on so little budget.’ I think they invested because this needs to exist in the world.” One investor joked that a single employee of Humane, the AI hardware company founded by Apple veterans that has raised more than $200 million, has more experience than all of Katta’s team combined.

The Daylight experience is still very much version 1, with all the glitchiness and incompleteness that implies. “You’ll have to give us some grace,” says Katta. It touts an “amber glow” from the backlighting that reminds me of what the sky looked like in New York when Canadian wildfire smoke permeated the skies. One key challenge will be luring developers to produce apps native to the device, which will require a huge leap of faith on their part given its scanty user base. Especially since Katta and his team are bucking a tech industry where the big powers control pretty much everything. Also, that $729 price is a lot to ask for a device that in some ways does less than a cheaper iPad. Katta hopes that economies of scale might push that down to under $400. “That would allow every kid to get access to a computer without the addictions, the distractions, the TikToks, the blue light, the myopia,” he says.

I’m not sure what the future might hold for Katta and Daylight. But I can’t help but root for him. And yes, I granted him that hug.

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Time Travel

Daylight’s most impressive feature is the ease of scrawling comments on a digital manuscript with a stylus. It reminded me of something I proposed 40 years ago, in the Fall 1984—and also final—edition of The Whole Earth Software Review. Under the rubric “Software That Ought to Be,” I outlined a hypothetical program that would bring the ease and clarity of hand-editing a manuscript to word processing software. I called it Blue Pencil. Though software like Microsoft Word would go on to introduce features that allowed editors to suggest changes in this style, it would be many years before tablets and electronic pencils would actually make my vision into reality. I should have applied for a patent!

The most direct pleasure from word processing is ease of revision. But first inspiration often proves to be on the mark, and the tempting painlessness of changing a word or softening a judgment can result in a worse manuscript than the original. Also, computers allow editors no easy way of presenting each suggested change as an option next to the original text. That’s less amiable than the old way of doing things—a manuscript double- or triple-spaced, with the comments—made by editors or by writers reading their work—“blue penciled” between the lines or in the margin.

BLUE PENCIL puts that process into the computer. It’s a full-featured “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” word processor but its unique advance is its “Blue Pencil Mode,” in which the copy automatically becomes triple-spaced and—wonder of wonders—you can write in the margins! (Of course it requires a bit-mapped graphic screen of higher resolutions than most computer screens—Macintosh is perfect.)

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Ask Me One Thing

Terry asks, “Print and TV journalism, as well as social media platforms, have polarized in a partisan way. Will this extend to AI?”

Thanks for the question, Terry. It’s one that both the big tech companies and those writing potential regulations are struggling with. With very large language models, trained on billions of pieces of content, it’s inevitable that biases will be reflected in the output of those models. But whereas humans are often blind to their own prejudices, it’s possible to identify when AI products politically tilt one way or another, and at least potentially there are ways to mitigate favoritism one way or another. Of course, since people are pretty partisan these days, what seems even-handed to some people appears rigged to others.

My worry is that in some cases the bias will be intentional. Think of what authoritarian governments might do to train their models to reflect current dogma and block information that contradicts the party line. This seems inevitable. As with the other media you mention, it’s not the technology that’s the problem—it’s the people who implement it.

You can submit questions tomail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

The Daylight Tablet Returns Computing to Its Hippie Ideals

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Steven Levy covers the gamut of tech subjects for WIRED, in print and online, and has been contributing to the magazine since its inception. His weekly column, Plaintext, is exclusive to subscribers online but the newsletter version is open to all—sign up here. He has been writing about technology for… Read more
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