Commercial electronic ink is on the way

 

Instead of turning the page when you finish reading this, imagine clicking a button to fill this page with completely new information. This is nothing new for online readers, but a product released this week brings this a step closer for people who prefer the rustle of paper to the click of a mouse.

The product is called Immedia, and is hailed by its manufacturer, E Ink of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the world's first commercial electronic ink display. The first Immedia sign went on display this week in the sports section of a J C Penney department store in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

The four foot by six foot flexible sign is three millimetres thick, suspended from the ceiling, and displays changing text-based information about special offers and highlighted brands.

E Ink says the display offers several advantages over traditional electronic displays. It says the new technology is cheaper, is easier to read from any angle and in bright light, can be printed on flexible surfaces, and consumes less power than existing LCD electronic displays.

J C Penney is planning to install Immedia signs in two other stores, and will use wireless pager technology to update the signs.

The signs are not yet being mass produced, and the only size currently available is based on three-by-four inch characters. Display prices vary from $500 (€443) to $5,000, depending on size, but E Ink says it ultimately hopes to bring the prices down to compete with paper displays. Its director of display technology, Mr Paul Drzaic, told The Irish Times the current display types were limited to two-colour text, but that multicolour variable-sized displays would be developed in the coming year.

The company is predicting electronic ink will be used next year in displays on palm top computers, mobile phones and wristwatches, while in the longer term it is predicting electronic books and newspapers which can be updated at the push of a button. Other potential applications include car dashboards and business cards.

The electronic ink technology was developed at the media lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which spun off E Ink in 1997 to commercialise the idea. The private company is backed by Motorola, Creavis GmbH, the Interpublic group of companies and others.

The technology is based on a layer of microcapsules, each onetenth of a millimetre wide and containing several light-coloured pigment chips in dark dyed liquid. Under this layer is a series of electrodes, which can apply positive or negative charges to the microcapsules. Depending on the charge applied, the pigment chips either move to the top or bottom of each microcapsule, changing the colour when viewed from above. When the charge is switched off, the pigment chips remain where they are, meaning the technology only consumes power while the display is changing.

This layer of microcapsules and electrodes can be attached to a flexible plastic foamboard. "They're as flexible as the substrate they're put on," said Mr Drzaic, "and they can be bent while operating". However he said further work on developing higher-resolution lower-cost displays was necessary, and forecast that prototypes of electronic books and newspapers would only become available in 2001.

Such paper prototypes may combine the new electronic ink with silicone gel technology recently developed by Lucent's Bell Laboratories, which allows electronic circuits to be printed on multiple, flexible surfaces. E Ink is working closely with Bell Labs to use this new technology to produce future electronic paper.

Moving graphics and even video on paper are planned, although further development is necessary. For instance, the rate at which images can be changed is too slow. Mr Drzaic said the response time was currently a few tenths of a second, compared to television image response times which are one twenty-fifth of a second. He was reluctant to commit to improvements, but said he expected the company to get the response time "several times faster a year from now". Three-thousand-year-old papyrus is not quite ready to make the leap into multimedia, but it is nearly there.

Eoin Licken can be reached at elicken@irish-times.ie