Signals Blog

Tablet Computers in the Lab: Five Entry Points to Watch

Tablet computers will transform the ways modern labs operate on at least the same scale that the personal computer did thirty years ago. If your current business or research is in any way tied to pre-tablet information workflows, systems, or software platforms - be prepared for some big changes in the coming years.

If you agree with these statements, an important question to ask is: through what channels will tablet computers most likely make their value known initially? In other words, what are the most obvious matches between the existing capabilities of tablet computers and currently laboratory problems?

Below are five ways tablet computers might be expected to enter labs, not as curiosities, but as essential research tools:

  1. Reference Manager Regardless of discipline or geographical location, one thing all scientists have in common is the need to manage scientific papers. Tools such as Mendeley make it possible to replace physical paper with fully-electronic, annotatable, sharable archives. The companion iPad app makes it possible for researchers to access their paper collection wherever they are - including the lab. Reading papers on a tablet is as comfortable - if not more so - than reading from paper. Despite serious usability issues with current technologies, the writing is on the wall; researchers will ditch paper in droves for the convenience and portability of cloud-synced, tablet-based reference managers.
  2. Instrument Controllers Few scientific instruments today are sold without the ability to interface to a personal computer, and in many cases a computer is essential. But personal computers take up precious lab space, while being used only at a fraction of their computational capacity. Furthermore, instrument manufacturers such as picoSpin are pushing the lower boundaries of instrument footprint. Recently, Shimadzu retrofitted some if its software to allow control of HPLCs through an iPad. Expect much more of this in the future as instrument makers seek to minimize costs and lab managers seek to maximize available workspace.
  3. Data Visualizers Touch interfaces offer a fundamentally new way to interact with computers. Combining touch interfaces with powerful data visualization and manipulation techniques has the potential to open new areas in which computers can be used to uncover hidden patterns and provide key insights.
  4. Calculators and Convertors A number of calculations can be needed when performing even a simple experiment. Specialty calculators and converters will be necessary and valuable - until these calculations are incorporated into notebook software and more specialized apps.
  5. Sample Inventory In any experimental field, sample management plays an extremely important, but often poorly-managed role. Tablet computers have the potential to eliminate much of the drudgery and error in managing sample inventories through the use of technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC) and Quick Response (QR) Codes. These technologies, taken together with the extreme portability of tablets, makes them ideal candidates for use in sample inventory applications.

Should tablet computers make significant headway in even one of the above laboratory uses, this would pave the way for the others because the devices will 'already be there'. This network effect is likely to lead to a situation in which tablet computers suddenly seem to appear everywhere in labs across the world overnight.

Knowing what to watch for means you won't need to be caught by surprise.