Of Plastic Paper and Electronic Ink

If a tree smiles in a woodlot and there is no one there to see it, is it really smiling? Maybe, if it has heard about two companies working in areas that may some day relieve the burden on over-harvested forests.

At Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Palo Alto, California, researchers are working with a material called Gyricon to take the place of traditional ink and paper. It works like this: a thin piece of plastic-like material is embedded with millions of little bicolor balls that can rotate, with one side (and color) or the other facing up. Applying an electrical field to the balls with a small wandlike device changes the way they face, creating writing and images. An image remains until the application of more electricity replaces it with another image.

“It’s so flexible that you can find a thousand applications,” says Bob Sprague, associate research center manager at PARC. These include electronic books and, with direct electronic delivery replacing wand delivery, notebook computer displays and signs in airports announcing arrivals and departures.

Currently, says Sprague, two-thirds of the power supporting the operation of a notebook computer goes to powering the backlight to light up the screen. Replacing that with electronic ink could yield significant savings.

At E Ink Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., researchers are working with similar technology to help retailers. Using something called pigment-based displays, E Ink can create plastic signs that change their messages depending on the application of pager signals. The signs contain both ink and a collection of particles whose color contrasts with that of the ink; when pager signals are applied, the particles move through the ink in such a way as to create a design.

“It’s like white geese on a dark pond,” explains Russ Wilcox, vice president and general manager at E Ink. “The geese can either float on the top of the pond or dive below. If they are all on top, the pond looks white. If they are all below, the pond looks dark. If some are on top of the pond and some are below, this can create different images” akin to writing.

By the end of 1999 E Ink plans to offer the technology to stores for simultaneous updating of signs at businesses with multiple locations. According to Wilcox, such technology will prove particularly helpful for IS departments responsible for eliminating discrepancies between scanners and store displays. Prices or product information will be updated from a central location by logging onto a Web site, typing a message and sending it by pager signal to all signs.

Also in the works are electronic books and newspapers. Imagine a copy of The Globe and Mail that would look and feel like a newspaper but be written in electronic ink so that it would automatically refresh with each breaking news story. E Ink hopes to introduce the technology, dubbed radio paper, in the next four or five years. The company also has its eyes on electronic books, which would allow readers to download new reading material into the same pages; you could, for example, read The English Patient and The Firm from the same volume.

Will these new technologies replace paper as we know it? Not completely, says PARC’s Sprague. But there are “certain applications where this technology is a much better alternative.” Wilcox agrees. “There will always be a place for the older medium. But this is a chance to combine two different mediums into something new.” He points out that the newspaper industry spends 40% of its revenue on raw materials. With paper and printing costs cut out of that, profits could rise dramatically. And so could the comfort level of trees. – Meg Mitchell