The Israeli designer who (almost) invented the iPad

Ron Arad came up with a great idea for electronics maker LG, but the South Korean company didn’t have the vision Apple did 8 years later

Industrial designer Ron Arad at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on August 14, 2012. (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Industrial designer Ron Arad at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on August 14, 2012. (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

In 2002, an Israeli industrial designer named Ron Arad was given a mission by South Korea’s LG: Design a touch screen for a new computer the company was working on. Arad did what was asked of him, designing the screen and working out the manufacturing specs. But along the way, he decided to add some bells and whistles.

The result? “In 2002 we had a product that looks a lot like something that finally came out nearly ten years later,” Arad said. Unfortunately for LG, he said, the company wasn’t visionary enough to realize what it had in its hands – a handheld device that looked, acted, and worked just like an iPad.

Perhaps Israel’s most famous industrial designer, Arad started out as an architect, studied at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, and eventually became the head of the Design Products Department at London’s Royal College of Art from 1997 to 2009.

During his career, Arad has designed products like the Rover chair, made from the front seats of old UK-made Rover automobiles (originally sold for 99 pounds in 1981, some models now go for over $20,000 at auction), and the very popular Bookworm Bookshelf, made by Italian company Kartell. In Israel, Arad designed the Design Museum Holon and Bauhaus Museum in Tel Aviv.

And then there was the LG VU, Arad’s idea for a computer monitor, sans the computer. “They commissioned me to design a monitor,” he said. “I wanted to develop something that would allow you to use the monitor anywhere, without having to drag a computer, a keyboard, or a mouse around.”

Arad was discussing his LG design project at a recent event sponsored by Omnitech, the Israeli representative of design software giant Autodesk, which produces programs and apps that lets people design just about anything.

Arad, with UK company The Light Surgeons, in collaboration with Tomato Interactive, even produced a video to show off his design — a video that presages the introduction of the iPad by some eight years. It’s all there: the touch screen, on-screen keyboard, icons, on-screen volume/display controls, video playing, horizontal/vertical orientation flip when turning the device around, built-in wifi connection, plus some things that Apple hasn’t thought of yet, such as a recharging pad that supplies power to the VU’s battery as it lies on the pad.

Panels from Ran Arad's LG VU tablet video (Photo credit: Light Surgeons)
Panels from Ran Arad’s LG VU tablet video (Photo credit: Light Surgeons)

“Steve Jobs thought he was a genius for putting the touch keyboard on the iPad, but the truth was we had thought of it, and many of the iPad’s innovations, nearly a decade earlier,” said Arad. “It just seemed like the smart thing to do. All the touch, video, and networking technology in the iPad was already in existence in 2002. It was just a matter of packaging it, which is what we did, and later on what Apple did.”

The only differences between the VU and the iPad were the inclusion of a DVD player in the LG device (Internet bandwidth wasn’t sufficiently developed at the time to stream a movie like “The Matrix,” the movie being displayed in the VU video), and the VU’s thickness. While the iPad is less than a third of an inch thick, the VU appears to be substantially bigger, conceived of as a portable home or office device (to replace a desktop PC or a laptop) instead of a traveling text and video player.

That thickness is probably due to the fact that components had not been miniaturized sufficiently in 2002 to allow for a device less than a third of an inch thick (as the newest iPads are). Had LG gone with Arad’s design and produced the VU, though, chances are it would have become the leading company in the tablet business.

Alas, it was not to be – to the sorrow of Arad and LG. “After the iPad came out and became such a hit, I asked them why they didn’t pursue the VU, and they said they couldn’t foretell the success of the tablet market – and that they were foolish for not pursuing it.”

Unfortunately for Arad and LG, neither thought to take out any patents on the idea or the design, Arad added. It’s not known if Steve Jobs was aware of the VU or had seen Arad’s video — but wherever Jobs and Apple have taken the iPad since, an Israeli designer was apparently there first.

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