January 07, 2004

E-Paper - Coming soon

Retailers have tested e-paper gadgets; now consumers have their chance

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By Jonathan Sidener
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

January 5, 2004

Sometime this year, consumers will have their first chance to buy electronic paper.

This first e-paper gadget, probably an electronic book, will be a steppingstone toward true electronic paper thin, flexible sheets that look and feel similar to paper, but are capable of changing text and images just as computer monitors do.

Retailers have tested the technology, which includes signs that can change prices or other information instantly. But this will be the first opportunity for individuals to own e-paper, a display technology that could revolutionize the publishing and printing industries.

If subscribers could download the daily newspaper with the push of a button, the need diminishes for armies of newspaper carriers and expensive printing presses. Magazines and the latest best sellers could arrive without shipping delays.

There are some hurdles before that happens. State-of-the-art e-paper is not yet as thin or flexible as real paper, and it is far more expensive.

There are two leading e-paper competitors, E Ink and Gyricon, a spinoff of Xerox, which developed the idea in the early 1970s. Several other companies and universities are researching the new displays.

"Our ultimate goal is RadioPaper, a flexible e-newspaper device," which would deliver the day's news wirelessly on e-paper, said Jennifer Haight, spokeswoman for Massachusetts-based E Ink. "There are a few next steps to realizing that goal, both by ourselves and the industry."

The company has produced a RadioPaper demonstration display, but a mass-produced version is probably a few years away, Haight said.

Meanwhile, E Ink and another company she declined to name will have the first consumer e-paper product later this year, she said.

While only a step toward full-fledged e-paper, this first gadget will be significant. It likely will be an electronic book, Haight said. Further details such as size, shape and manufacturer remain shrouded in corporate secrecy.

Like a traditional book, the e-paper book will be conducive to reading while curled on the couch or lounging on the beach. E-paper, like real paper, is easy to read in a variety of lighting conditions.

Reflective displays

Today's computer monitors are emissive, meaning they emit light. Creating that light consumes a lot of power. Also, staring at a light source for hours on end causes eyestrain, one reason why the "paperless office" has never materialized.

The new technologies that emulate paper are reflective displays. Their simulated ink reflects light in the same way a printed page does.

E Ink says its displays produce better contrast than a typical newspaper. The company says its reflective displays are up to six times brighter than many LCD monitors, with twice the contrast.

Because e-paper only consumes energy when a reader loads a new page, it can operate on a small battery, making it lighter than LCD displays.

Gyricon, which calls its e-paper Smart Paper, uses thousands of tiny, electrically charged balls between two thin sheets of plastic to create images and text on the "paper."

Each ball has a white half and a black half. When a positive charge is applied to a ball, it will turn to display the black half. When a negative charge is applied, it rotates to display the white side.

The technology creates an image by precisely controlling the charge to each ball, in effect turning the black dots on and off.

E Ink has a slightly different process, which uses tiny, stationary capsules instead of balls. The capsules contain white particles, black particles and a clear fluid. When a charge is applied to the capsule, black particles rise to the top. The opposite charge brings the white particles to the top.

A third e-paper technology was announced by Philips Research in the September issue of the scientific journal Nature.

Philips uses black oil and water trapped in tiny cells to create black and white pixels.

An electric charge makes the water push the black oil to the side, exposing a white surface underneath. Philips says it can change its oil-based pixels from black to white much faster than either E Ink or Smart Paper. Its technology may one day produce e-paper capable of displaying video.

Today's e-paper requires a "backplane" of rigid electronics to control the pixels. Several companies are working to develop flexible circuits to replace the rigid backplane.

Last month, the Chinese newspaper People's Daily reported that Southwest China Normal University had developed an ink containing organic transistors flexible enough to be sprayed on cloth or plastic.

Research into flexible electronics also is fueling a technology likely to compete with e-paper: OLEDs, or organic light-emitting diodes.

OLEDs, which already appear in car stereo displays, are flexible and use less power than LCD displays. OLEDs also can display color video.

Both E Ink and Gyricon have developed retail-store sign systems based on lower-resolution versions of e-paper.

While E Ink pushes ahead on a consumer product built around a rigid frame, Gyricon says it will focus on its sign technology for the moment.

The company doubts there's a market for e-paper supplied via a rigid frame.

"With a stiff backplane, it's like carrying around a little mini-laptop," Gyricon marketing director Jim Welch said. "Nobody's going to do that."

His company recently tested its sign system at stores in Massachusetts. The Gyricon signs are battery-powered and linked to a wireless network, so store managers can change prices and other sign information with a few keystrokes.

"You might have 5,000 signs in a store," Welch said. "It's expensive and labor-intensive to change those signs. That's why stores have three-day sales. It wouldn't be worth the effort to change the signs for a shorter sale. With our signs, you can have just-in-time marketing."

Jonathan Sidener: (619) 293-1239; [email protected]

Posted by Craig at January 7, 2004 07:18 PM