Full-text audio version of this essay.

How long has it been since you last looked away from a screen? If you were to stop reading this article, put down your phone, and direct your attention instead to your external surroundings, it might seem like a triumph of your willpower over an algorithmically determined destiny that expects you to continue facing a screen’s glow. But as more screens pop up around us in the built environment, it may become harder to look away.

Despite the societal concerns occasionally expressed today about excessive “screen time,” more and more screens are being embedded into the walls and windows of restaurants and stores. While phones are castigated as dinner-table distractions, ordering food increasingly involves phones, tablets, or kiosk touchscreens. Window shopping — which once might have seemed a serendipitous alternative to online shopping, a vestige of a shared public realm in the physical world — now may involve observing tableaus composed of screens.

Concerns about screen time are widely shared enough that Facebook cited them in its recently announced ambitions to develop a new kind of platform for digital media consumption. In last October’s promotional video detailing the company’s plans for a “metaverse,” Mark Zuckerberg claimed that a Facebook-run virtual space would provide collective participants with a more authentic sense of presence and embodiment than today’s technology for remote work. It would reduce time spent looking at screens — specifically mentioned as a behavior that should be reduced — by effectively bringing participants inside the screen. “Imagine you put on your glasses or headset,” he says, as if this were categorically different from looking at a screen. But in fact it only perpetuates the function of screens as a window onto somewhere else. One still looks through a frame, a deliberate transformative act of passage separating distinct materialized and dematerialized worlds from each other.

The need for a metaverse or VR helmets could seem like an odd detour when ordinary reality is more palpably made of and for information

Our culture has long interpreted screens as portals, windows into other places, channeling potential fantasies of escape. But even as virtual reality is pitched as an alternative to traditional “screen time,” new screens are being installed in the spaces around us, ones that are becoming harder to distinguish from analog reality in the physical world. Rather than serving as a proscenium separating us from a virtual or imagined realm, the screens come in flexible shapes and sizes and can be distributed throughout physical environments to dynamically alter them. In a sense, these screens are the inverse of virtual reality, not moving toward ever more intense three-dimensional immersions but toward an even flatter flat screen. Their presence within a room is subtle rather than attention-grabbing.

The metaverse, no matter how spectacular its simulations become, might be less technologically transformative than an everyday trip to an ordinary physical grocery store, where environmental screens are beginning to be deployed. At a first glance, the electronic nature of these environmental screens may not attract immediate notice. Some adopt skeuomorphic-like designs intended to make them resemble analog objects: They might, for example, appear as electronic grocery price labels that mimic the paper price tags they may have replaced. The company E Ink sells electronic signage described as having a desirable “print-like appearance.” Some backlit screens dynamically adapt their lighting levels to their surroundings, a feature which helps such a screen blend with its environment rather than drawing attention to its own glow.

Large retailers including Kroger and Walmart are introducing animated screens to display product prices in place of multiple individual paper labels on their shelves. Such a screen — as wide as a living-room set but not much taller than a watch face — is hard to comprehend as a single, continuous object. Its display area is not meant to be grasped all at once but may be subdivided to display discrete zones of content with distinct color schemes and marketing messages, potentially drawn from their capacity to triangulate our positions as viewers (as with “smart shelves”). Or a single piece of content can be stretched across multiple panels. This has the effect of diminishing viewers’ awareness of a screen’s borders, blurring its contents with the world around it. Digital content, now more fragmented than before — as with screens arranged in jumbled mosaic collages, or hung from a ceiling like banners — erupts into the visible world like slices of a Modernist collage, as in this video footage of hardware distributors testing the performance of shelf-edge screens.

Screens are becoming even less like familiar fixed displays and more like a new raw material

Some of the claims made for environmental screens — that they can help brick-and-mortar stores compete with online shopping by making stores more interactive, more adaptive, and more pandemic-proof — might suggest that they will mimic the functions of the ones we already carry. But as the miniaturization technologies behind modern screens improve and make them lighter weight, the screens are becoming even less like familiar fixed displays and more like a new raw material to design with. Bulk sheets of high-tech screen material can be cut into customized forms and curvatures to suit the whims of designers and decorators. They could eventually become like chameleon skins, or a new kind of plastic.

This would change what it means to look at a screen. Our view of them would no longer occur through (or be limited by) the aesthetic and psychological boundaries of a cohesive frame. Screens without the illusion of a within or beyond invite no immersion or escapism through them. Instead of positioning audiences in a static, focused posture, environmental screens primarily address audiences that are expected to be moving. But unlike previous iterations of “media facades” — e.g. the visual environment of Times Square — these screens are not flashy showpieces but are intended instead to be taken for granted. Just as electricity itself shifted from a spectacle demonstrated at exhibitions to an everyday presence in our homes, screens could make a similar shift, unobtrusively surrounding us and shaping our world (rather than, say, being strapped to our faces).

Camouflaged screens could produce aesthetic experiences now seen as the opposite of screen viewing. Environmental screens, like their wood-paneled-television ancestors, may be designed to blend into home spaces, and like televisions they may sometimes be turned on by users to control the ambience of physical space. Fragmented collages of color, texture, movement, and sensation could be added to surfaces, giving a peripheral impression of flickering flames or natural sunlight. The escape from screens would be facilitated by more screens.

In a recent essay, architecture writer Kate Wagner critiques 3D-modeled re-creations of retail store shelves in virtual reality, asserting the value of the here and now “where I can touch things, where I can smell and taste things, where I can feel the airy envelopment of a cathedral, where I can walk and travel and be with others.” But physical stores — with their brightly-lit, air-conditioned suburban interiors — have long felt like an analog approximation of a virtual world.

We are being conditioned to think of the metaverse as something that is yet to come, but in many respects it has already long been here, in the enhanced commercial environments we already experience in everyday life. Environmental screens would attempt to build on this. As with nature itself, we might grow to take the presence of such screens for granted as objects with an innate three-dimensional presence in our world. A car that is covered with screens — for example, BMW’s recently revealed concept car — is still a car to us, not a screen. An expanding range of uses for LEDs will similarly enable other objects to be embedded with transforming lighting schemes and arrays of screen-like embedded programmable lights.

If screens covered everything, we would be no longer able to trust the illumination or the shadows we saw on walls and surfaces as a reliable reference point for perceiving three-dimensional space. They might sometimes feel a bit like they were being digitally rendered. The appearance of physical objects would become more provisional, and the things around us could start to be conceptualized similarly to how 3-D content is in games now: as calculated mathematical assemblies of geometric planes that are all surface and no interior. Physical space would be experienced more like game space, without the need for an interface.

Physical stores — with their brightly-lit, air-conditioned suburban interiors — have long felt like an analog approximation of a virtual world

If the technology spreads further, we might someday no longer notice where an indicator light on an object ends and a screen begins. Information might casually flow over many of the surfaces of the objects in the world around us, like waves lapping at the edge of a pond. Such adaptive lighting conditions would allow the new screens to operate similarly to the green screens used in Hollywood special effects, which use selective illumination to allow a blank backdrop to be seamlessly filled in with footage of another place. Our everyday lives could become surrounded by propped-up scenography, as though we were on a movie set, within a realm we once assumed would stay on the other side of the glass.

Internet-connected “smart” devices (such as Amazon Echo or even refrigerators with LCD screens) have set a precedent for interacting with physical objects in a diverse range of shapes and sizes in new electronically enabled ways. By extension, consumer goods and home decor could become a vector for helping normalize a world of truly ubiquitous screens, one within which you might adjust (or pay to adjust) the color and appearance of your physical objects in the same way we now customize avatars in virtual space. Just as recent Apple iPhone models now automatically adjust the color temperatures of their screens to encourage users to have healthy sleeping habits, walls of your entire bedroom might change color or texture around you as you fall asleep, or perhaps just in response to your number of social media likes. Objects could become gamified with reward systems that change how they appear based on our interactions or “achievements,” tracked through future versions of today’s “smart” mattresses and fitness trackers and other kinds of environmentally embedded sensors.

We would engage in what is sometimes conceived as “online” behavior more prominently in the physical world, and the world around us would take on more of the attributes considered to be “virtual.” The need for a metaverse or VR helmets could seem like an odd detour when ordinary reality is more palpably made of and for information. Our perception would be constructed by both pixels and bricks and mortar at the same time, without requiring us to use any specialized equipment or apparatuses to see what would otherwise not be there.

Future configurations of computer screens that distort the appearance of the world around us in response to our moods could imitate the surface-level appearance of a psychedelic experience, but to serve a commercial agenda. And the trips they induce might not necessarily ever need to end.