The Future Is Paper

Published Date
01 - Dec - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Dec - 2005
The Future Is Paper
In Gadgetopia (Digit, July 2005), we designed the theoretical Gadget of Our Dreams (GOD)-basically, a single gadget most of us would like to have, provided someone put it together and marketed it. It was conceptualised using existing technologies, one of which was the paper/foldable display.

Thus far, gadget sizes have been defined by the size of their screens. Too large a screen and the gadget cannot be sold as a 'portable' device; too small, and the screen becomes barely readable, ruling out full-fledged computing on it! This, perhaps, is why there's still a market for PDAs, despite the fact that mobile phones- which have a much more compact form factor-have enough processing power to accomplish the tasks of a regular PDA.

We may not yet be at the stage of bringing high-end 3D gaming to a mobile phone, but we certainly have the technology and hardware capabilities to make devices powerful yet small. Again, the problem has always been displays: a display that's too large not only results in an unacceptable form factor, but also eats up battery power by the watts.
But what if there was a technology that could provide you with a large display screen which could be rolled, folded and manipulated to fit into a tiny space when not being used? And at the same time it used less battery power than the backlight of your cell phone?

Amazing, right? Well, not quite: this is old news now. The problem is that the black-and-white era is behind us, and we're not interested in going back there-most such displays are only monochrome capable yet, with the operative word being "yet"!

The Legacy
The idea of paper displays, or ePaper as it's also known, is hardly new. Back in 1975, Nicholas Sheridan, a physicist working at the Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), started his  research on ePaper. To give you an idea of how ahead of his time Sheridan was, the novel idea back then was to replace paper with portable flat-panel displays, which, as we all know, were not exactly portable back then, were very expensive, and had terrible contrast-you could hardly make out the screen in a lit room, forget about outdoors!

Sheridan's dream was to make a flexible paper-like sheet that could not only display text and images, but also be re-written by using an electrostatic charge. The solution he came up with was to use tiny electrically-charged spheres, enclosed in the oil-filled cavities of a thin layer of a transparent elastomer.

Incidentally, this is the technology Xerox PARC still uses in its research of ePaper, which they call SmartPaper. Each 100-micron sphere is coloured half white and half black (or another dark colour). The spheres contain a dipole-like a magnet, with positive and negative charges on opposite ends.

Thus, when an electric charge is passed over certain pre-designated areas of the elastomer film, the spheres in those areas rotate to show their dark side, colouring the area. A chip can control the charges at different areas to produce a sort of advanced, electronically-controlled etch-a-sketch!

Since the spheres are reflective in nature, they are extremely high-contrast, making them readable even under direct sunlight. This technology has already been used to make some interesting products. We will talk about those a little later. Needless to say, this technology, though easily implementable, has the drawback of being monochrome. Still, it's a step in the right direction.

The Leaders
Say the words "paper display" and the name that springs to mind is E-Ink Corporation-the Xerox or Discman of paper displays! A pioneer in this field, E-Ink is consistently working towards building better and slimmer displays.

E-Ink currently provides technology and paper displays to many corporates-not just to help them build prototypes, but also for full-fledged products. E-Ink's investors include  Toppan Printing of Japan, Intel Capital Corporation, Motorola Corporation, Philips Components (a division of Royal Philips Electronics) and Vivendi Universal Publishing (France).

The list of companies that are actively researching paper displays is even longer. Needless to say, the market is waiting impatiently to see some significant progress in this field, and researchers are working overtime to meet this demand.

E-Ink's technology is similar to what Sheridan came up with at Xerox PARC, but is definitely not the same. Instead of using microcapsules that are coloured half-black and half-white, E-Ink uses microcapsules that contain granules of a positively-charged white pigment and granules of a negatively-charged black pigment.

How E-Ink Works

This image explains how E-Ink works, and you can clearly see the advantages it offers over Xerox PARC's texhnology

These capsules are suspended in a clear fluid that lies between thin layers of a plastic material, which is, in turn, laminated on a layer of micro-circuitry and electrodes. The top plastic layer is a transparent electrode, whereas the bottom layer contains the control electrodes.

Now, in order to draw a display, the electrodes are charged either positive or negative, according to the image requirement. The micro-circuitry is small enough for two electrodes to be placed under each microcapsule, and if both electrodes are charged positively, the positively-charged white pigment granules in the capsule directly above them are pushed to the top, thus forming a white dot, or pixel. Similarly, a negative charge causes the negatively-charged black pigment granules to be pushed up, thus forming a black pixel.

Now, the two electrodes under each microcapsule can be polarised differently as well, thus forming a half-white and half-black pixel. This is how E-Ink's technology achieves higher resolutions and apparent shades of grey. All this circuitry forms a screen with a calculable resolution, which can then be controlled by a display driver or graphics chip.

Moreover, the "E-Ink" is reflective in nature,  and it looks just like print on paper, has a readable angle of 170 degrees, and is clear even in direct sunlight.

But enough on costs and technology briefs-let's get on to the actual prototypes that have been developed to further illustrate the road ahead.
Here we'll take a look at some products that are currently in development, and which, hopefully, should reach the markets, and you, within the next few years. Instead of looking at the available prototypes individually, we'll look at some of the possible implementations of paper displays, and see what products are being developed to fill those gaps.

Electronic Newspapers / Books
This is the very first implementation that the world thought up, which, unfortunately, is still only in the prototype stage. The most obvious implementation of a paper display is to replace paper! Since the most common interaction people have with actual paper is perhaps the newspaper, it is only natural that paper displays try and find their way into this space.

How can a paper display replace your newspaper? The answer is simple. Consider this: you probably go out and buy a newspaper everyday, or wait for the delivery boy to drop off one at your home. What happens if you have to leave home early on certain days? What about the news that happened after the paper was printed? What about those of us who like to read three and four different newspapers? Though TV and the Internet have fulfilled some of these needs, it's still not enough!

Now think of a paper display that's the same size as your newspaper. It's foldable, for easy storage, just like your newspaper, and isn't 40 pages thick! Now imagine if you could connect this paper via Wi-Fi or WiMax to news servers. Essentially, you would just need the single paper display to read all the news from all your favourite news sources. Obviously, news distribution would have to become subscription services, much like iTunes.

Not only do paper displays in this form solve the problem of storage and mobility, it also means that this sort of a system would enable you to access news as it happened, much like RSS feeds do for you right now. The added advantage here would be that you can sit and read it like a newspaper, which beats peering at a monitor any day!

Another advantage is that you could essentially sort your news according to taste. What this means is that, say, you prefer The Times Of India for their sports news, The Indian Express for their political news and The Hindustan Times for general news, you could program your paper display to show you the relevant news from the desired news source. This is akin to using a news site that allows you to personalise the way your news appears, except that using the paper display you could be anywhere at all-travelling in a train, standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, or even while in the loo!

So what products have been, or are, being developed in this context?

Though only available in Japan right now, this is an e-book reader that uses a paper display. It can store up to 10 MB of e-books, and boasts of an impressively sharp resolution of 170 pixels per inch. The display, unlike all other displays available on readers or PDAs, is absolutely clearly readable even in direct sunlight. Though the screen has a dull plastic look, it's almost as readable as newsprint.

The reader runs on four AAA batteries, which can last for as much as 10,000 page changes. Thankfully, the option of AAA batteries means that you can just pick up a fresh set at almost any general store across the world, and not have to rely on a power outlet to recharge any internal batteries!

There's a memory stick slot to add additional memory to the LIBRIé, and a small speaker and headphone outlet to play any embedded audio in your e-books. It also features a keyboard that lets you use the inbuilt dictionary, so that you can translate words into English. We're hoping to see a fully English version soon!

There are drawbacks though, namely screen refresh rates-or the lack thereof! When you click to turn a page, it takes a second to refresh the screen. While it may seem that we're being unreasonably harsh by complaining about this, try entering text on a display that takes a second to show every letter you type! Hopefully, these kinks will be ironed out soon-perhaps when a "LIBRIé 2" is launched!   


This is a really cool gadget! It features a rollable paper display in a device that can best be described as a "mobile e-reader." The display is capable of four monochrome shades, that can be rolled up to a radius with a curvature as little as 7.5 mm. The contrast ratio displayed is 10:1 (bright to dark), more than sufficient to be able to read it in direct sunlight. The screen resolution is 320 x 240 (QVGA) pixels at a diameter of five inches. When closed, the device measures a mere 100 x 60 x 20 mm, obviously making it extremely pocket-able. We're not quite sure about battery power, but reports say that the consumption is minimal.

Being a mobile gadget, it should be able to receive news and updates of various kinds (traffic, weather, and so on) quite easily, through Wi-Fi, WiMax, or even cellular networks. All this has still not been finalised, of course, but we're hoping for the best!

This product is still a prototype, and its makers, Philips' Polymer Vision, currently have no plans to mass-produce it-unless popular customer demands say otherwise. Basically, what this means is that they built this prototype to give us a glimpse of what's possible, and should we decide that we just have to have one, some manufacturer or the other can lease the patent rights and provide us with products! A tall order indeed, but if you would like to support the "Build me a READIUS" cause, go to contact/Index.html and demand that Polymer Vision start mass manufacturing some!

Everyday Life
Apart from the standard uses of paper displays in e-newspapers and e-readers, paper or rollable displays might have an important part to play in everyday life as well. The simplest example would be hoardings, where space can be sold as per the time of the day. So you could have animated advertisements that are just as visible in the day as in the night-current neon signs are useless in the day! There are also huge power savings that paper displays offer over neon signs. As for standard painted or printed billboards, they're no competition to cheap paper display billboards that can be animated.

Apart from this, you could also see ultra-thin watches being made, which could be possible of displaying news or traffic updates at the push of a button.

Then there's the whole print advertising industry to be thought of. Imagine if you got a copy of Digit that was just two  pages thick, yet contained 10 times more content than it does currently! After all, all print magazines are limited to a certain number of pages due to printing and handling costs. But that's still the content-what about the advertisements? Imagine if, instead of flipping pages, all you had to do was press a button, and as things are even now, there would be advertisements placed at strategic points between text. The difference here is that advertisements could be animated, and perhaps even supported by sound-sort of like the Flash advertisements you come across online!

If connectivity improves, you could perhaps use the (imaginary/future) WiMax public network to avail of a special offer that was advertised! Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves here… or are we?

Let's take a look at a few ways rollable paper displays have started to revolutionise a few areas of everyday life. Expect to see a lot more of these examples in the near future!

Seiko's "Future Now" E-Paper Display Watch
This watch looks like a stylish wristband, and is incredibly slim and sleek. The watch's display is made up entirely of a paper display, and offers, as usual, a high-contrast screen. Since the display has pure black and pure white particles, it offers almost the same readability as printed paper, and about twice the contrast of an LCD screen. Since the display is flexible, it helps Seiko use only curves in the design, which is why the watch looks so sexy! This also opens up a whole new world of outlets for the creative juices of watch designers: they can now achieve designs that were not possible earlier, due to the inflexible nature of previous faces and displays.

Because the paper display is so small, and is a simple implementation, it has virtually no power consumption, at least when compared with any other existing display technologies. You can hope to see the "Future Now" watch to hit stores somewhere in mid-2006, since release dates have been set for spring 2006 for Japan.
So far, we've only seen products that offer monochrome displays, as those were easier to produce. However, this does not mean that colour displays were ruled out. Till date, all the aforementioned products and technologies were flexible monochrome displays. So, when E-Ink's technology was recently used to produce colour paper displays, it resulted in a great deal of excitement. However, E-Ink is still working on making these displays flexible or rollable.

Let's look at a few products that have been made using this colour paper display technology:

Microsoft Xbox's Point-Of-Purchase Jade Empire Game Release
Yes, we realise it's a mouthful, but that's what it's called! A Point-Of-Purchase (POP) promotion is basically an advertising or promotional gimmick that's undertaken in stores (the points of purchase) to attract customers to a particular product.

Those of you into Pink Floyd might remember that their album Pulse  utilised a revolutionary method of attracting attention-the Laser Disc of the album had a red LED on the box that would blink "Pulse" every couple of seconds. This actually increased sales!

Neolux Corporation, a leader in the field of POP promotions, devised a plan which could use E-Ink's paper display technology to create a revolutionary POP promotional method called the "Ink-In-Motion". Basically, they could use paper displays to attractively animate the packaging of a product!

Apparently, someone at Microsoft thought this was perfect for the launch of the new Xbox game Jade Empire. Shown here are three images, one with all displays off, the second is the next step in the animation and the third is an even more enhanced animation. You can also see the GIF file at: image_release_82.html/ to get a better idea of how the animation appears .

Considering all this was done, affordably, using paper displays, you can well imagine how stores are going to look in the future. Perhaps low-cost products may not employ such tactics, but game distributors are surely going to be looking into this technology.

As the paper displays improve, we may even be able to preview actual screenshots from games before buying them. Or even turn the box over and read reviews of the game, from our choicest Web sites, which can be downloaded off the Net! The possibilities are well and truly limitless!

E-Ink And Toppan Printing's Colour Paper Display
We foretold the coming of this product in Gadgetopia in the July 2005 issue, and just six months later, here it is!

This is a colour paper display screen that was developed using E-Ink's display technology and Toppan Printing's flat panel colour filters. Incidentally, Toppan Printing is the world's largest supplier of colour filter arrays for flat panel monitors.

The display offers a sharpness of 83 pixels per inch at a resolution of 400 x 300, and achieves 12-bit colour! The custom-made colour filter array, provided by Toppan, uses high-brightness colour (RGBW) to maintain paper-quality contrast. Basically this means that the white is as good as paper, and the black and other colours are shown up in high contrast to give the display a proper magazine page look!

The screen is six inches in diameter, which is the size of an ordinary paperback novel. This step forward by E-Ink and Toppan now makes the dream of colour paper displays in mobile devices an achievable reality!

Since the display uses minimal power and has a readability angle and contrast on par with paper, it's already got conventional mobile displays beat. The colour display reportedly uses as much as 100 times less power than a conventional LED, which means that battery life on existing mobile products can easily double if this technology is used-not to mention a sizeable reduction in weight!

Perhaps the first adopters of this technology will be everyday devices such as electronic sign boards, digital cameras (for the preview screens), ATMs, GPS devices, and kiosks, thanks to the amazing readability under direct sunlight. Later, we might see the display being used in mobile phones, PDAs, laptops, and other mobile devices that need to save on battery power. The product is said to be able to hit production lines soon-by the end of 2006. 

The Return Of Paper
If, or rather, when, these displays are successfully made flexible, perhaps all of us will be able to enjoy gadgets that don't keep running out of battery life, and have screens we can actually read easily in the daytime.

Although we normally cover technologies of the near future in this section, this time we focussed on paper displays, which were first invented in the '70s. The reason for this is: within the next two years, we see paper displays being used a lot more, and becoming a part of everyday life, thanks to their reduced manufacturing costs and battery use.

Since every development that's happened in the past few years has revolved around mobility and the ease of information flow, paper displays seem to fit right into the mould for the future. They're cheaper, less fragile, offer better readability, are lighter, and use less battery power. Now, if only manufacturers and researchers can find a way to rival LCD and CRT refresh rates, we're set to see the return of the paper era, albeit in the new form of e-paper!

Would you be interested in buying any of the products talked about in this article, as and when they're available? Does the idea of an interactive Digit printed on e-paper excite you? Write in and tell us-we'd love to hear your take on the subject.

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