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Electronic Paper Becomes a Reality
Posted On June 1, 2004
For the last 5 years or so, I've been following developments from a small company in Cambridge, Mass., that has been working on an "electronic ink" technology for commercializing in electronic displays. E Ink Corp., founded in 1997, hoped its technology would provide significant advantages over traditional flat-panel technologies since it offered unique properties, such as flexibility, brightness, minimal power requirements, and ultra-thinness. While the company announced some interesting applications for large display signs over the years, its goal has been to develop high-resolution displays for personal electronics and laptop computers and, eventually, electronic books and digital wireless newspapers.

This spring, E Ink, which has partnered for the last 3 years with Royal Philips Electronics, a provider of display technologies, and Sony Electronics, announced the first consumer application of an electronic paper display module: LIBRIe, Sony's new e-book reader. The LIBRIe technology is said to offer a truly paper-like reading experience similar to newsprint and can be easily viewed in bright sunlight or in dimly lit environments at virtually any angle. The electronic paper doesn't rely on a backlit display but uses an electric charge to move black or white capsules to the page surface.

Sony's LIBRIe enables the viewing of up to 10,000 pages before battery replacement is necessary (four AAA alkaline), and it can store up to 500 downloaded books. It is similar in size and design to a paperback book, weighs about half a pound, and costs $380. Readers can download e-books from the Web for less than $3 each.

"In today's mobile world, we know that the quality of the experience and ease-of-use are important in driving consumer adoption of mobile devices. Up until now, consumers have been less willing to adopt e-reading applications because of poor display quality on cumbersome devices," said Yoshitaka Ukita of Sony. "This display solution provides a level of text clarity comparable to paper. Combined with our thin, lightweight device design, this novel e-book reader offers users an enjoyable experience and the freedom to access material at their convenience."

But don't get too excited about having one soon—it's been sold only in Japan since May. The company is said to be waiting to see how it sells before deciding to offer it in the U.S. or Europe.

From the posted comments and reviewer buzz I've seen, it looks like there are some shortcomings to fix before Sony offers the product more widely. According to some, the screen is great but the buttons are kludgy, the screen refresh is slow, and at launch, the Sony e-book system only offered 400 titles that expire after 60 days.

But devices like the LIBRIe could really speed the adoption of e-books and other e-reading applications. It overcomes many of the limitations of existing technology for these reading experiences. E Ink's technology delivers the look, form, and utility of paper, providing both readability and portability.

According to E Ink, it's developing electronic paper displays for many applications spanning hand-held devices, wearable displays, and transportation signage under two main product platforms: high-resolution active matrix displays and low-to-medium pixel count segmented displays. E Ink is a private corporation that includes among its investors and strategic partners TOPPAN Printing Co., Royal Philips Electronics, The Hearst Corp., CNI Ventures, Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., Vossloh Information Technologies, and Motorola.

Other research labs and companies are also hard at work on advancements in display technology, including Xerox (its Gyricon subsidiary is selling SmartPaper), Kodak, IBM, and MIT. Market research experts expect this area to be very hot over the next 5 years.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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