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When Amy Wohl and her husband go on vacation to a country where English-language books may not be readily available, they bring a suitcase filled with about 20 to 25 books with them. Wohl would love to be able to leave the suitcase behind and take a couple of e-book readers instead, but she says the technology simply isn’t there yet.

To begin with, the e-books of today just don’t have the capacity to carry that many books, said Wohl, president of Narberth, Penn.-based consulting firm Wohl Associates. She would also be hard pressed to find a reader with a battery life that would survive an aeroplane trip from North America to Asia, she said.

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, the devices that are running around right now are not likely to be the mainstream platforms,” Wohl said. “They’re both not good enough and they’re too expensive.”

Wohl isn’t alone in her criticism of electronic books.

“Most of the hardware approaches, I would say, have been abysmal failures, mainly because they don’t ever seem to get the manufacturing capacity to a point where they can make money on the hardware,” said James Lundy, a research director with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

The soft readers, such as Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp.’s Microsoft Reader are fairing a little bit better, but they still have a lot of hurdles to overcome, he said. The software giant’s reader uses ClearType technology and can be used to read books on the Web and on Pocket PCs, such as Compaq’s iPAQ.

The screen resolutions on soft readers range from 72 to 125 dpi, which can’t compare to the 300 to 600 dpi you find on the printed page, Lundy said.

“So, if you’re going to read for any amount of decent time, you are going to deal with eye fatigue,” he said.

It’s also difficult to enjoy e-books because you constantly have to move them to get the proper reading angle, he said.

“My opinion is that the current generation of e-books are not quite right in terms of their form factors and their characteristics. But there are a lot of people working on the problem. It’s just a matter of time before they get it right,” said Toronto-based Mark Chignell, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Toronto.

Studies done in the 1980s showed that people read slower off a screen than from a piece of paper, he said. But if the screen quality is high enough, then that difference goes away.

“Then people can read effectively off screens and be comfortable doing so, as long as you have very high-quality screens – higher quality than we have today. That has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks,” he said.

Real estate is another issue, Wohl said.

“One of the things know about how people read, is that people who are able to read very quickly will do that by sweeping their eye down the page, reading whole lines at a time,” Wohl said. But e-books generally have narrow widths, and the lines displayed on them are shorter lengths.

“So basically they interfere with the reading process in some sense,” she said. Wohl finds the different methods needed in reading e-books annoying.

“I’ve tried all the ones that have come down the pipe so far. I thought I should give them a fair try and see what I thought, and what I thought was, ‘Boy, this isn’t right yet.'”

digital paper

But Wohl isn’t completely discouraged. She believes that Gyricon Media Inc.’ SmartPaper and E Ink Corp.’s electronic ink offer some interesting possibilities.

They could form “the basis of building another generation of electronic books,” she said.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Gyricon is a spin off of Xerox Corp. and is charged with making the company’s e-paper technology commercially viable. The original idea for the e-paper was invented at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) about 15 years ago, said Robert Sprague, Gyricon’s interim CEO. But Xerox only began giving it serious thought about five or six years ago.

“We realized it was a good way to make an erasable paper,” he said.

The SmartPaper is made up of tiny little balls about 90 microns in diameter, which is a little less than the diameter of a human hair. The balls are made out of a polyethylene-like material, and with two hemispheres painted different colours – either black and white, or some other combination.

The balls are embedded in a sheet of plastic material, and in that sheet they’re embedded in their own little cavity which is full of silicon oil. The lubricant leaves the balls free to rotate in the cavity. Each half of the balls also has either a positive or negative charge. By placing a voltage across the material, you can determine which side of the ball faces up. A positive charge will bring the negative side up.

A page of paper can have about 30 million balls, Sprague said. The paper could be laminated to an active array of transistors to build a display on a PDA or telephone.

“This type of display takes a very small amount of power to run it. and the reason it does is once the ball rotates, it stays rotated until you do something to change it. So it’s very different from a battery operated portable display,” he said.

Currently, Gyricon is using the SmartPaper for electronic signs in retail stores, which Macy’s is testing out.

But Sprague said the paper offers a lot of possibilities for the future.

Because it’s re-writable, the paper can be used as an electronic newspaper which readers can download daily.

Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink has similar hopes for its technology, which had its beginnings at the MIT Media Lab.

“We’re going to enable a new kind of e-book that no one’s really seen yet that is only about as heavy and as thick as a pad of paper,” said Russ Wilcox, vice-president and general manager of E Ink.

The electronic ink is also much more readable than the e-books of today, Wilcox claimed.

The brightness and contrast of traditional handheld displays are only about five per cent as good as real ink on paper, he said.

“Ours is about 50 per cent as good as ink on paper,” he said.

The electronic ink is made up of black and white paint chips about the diameter of the human hair.

The white paint chips are made with the same ingredient that paper makes use to make their paper white, and the black paint chips are made with the material that ink makers use to make their ink dark, Wilcox said.

The balls are charges with negative or positive charges and are placed in a clear fluid to allow them to move.

Displays using the electronic ink need less power, Wilcox said.

“We draw 90 per cent less power than traditional displays,” he said. The only time the display needs power is when the information on the page needs to be changed.

Philips is currently working with the technology to create a display which will have greater than 125 pixels per inch, he said. Although the electronic ink is capable of a higher resolution, cost becomes an issue.

“Clearly, the more pixels you’re going to have, the more drivers you’re going to have. It adds to the electronics cost, so it’s a commercial decision how many pixels per inch you have. The eye loses resolutions above about 200 pixels per inch if you’re reading at a distance of about 18 inches. You won’t really see products coming out above 200 (dpi) because it gets expensive,” he said.

E Ink’s paint chips are much smaller than the rotating balls in Xerox’s paper, according to Wilcox.

“It’s the difference between covering a gym floor with basketballs, vs. covering a gym floor with sand,” Wilcox claimed.

“In the near term, what people are going to see is the screen quality of their digital devices become much better and it’ll become much more practical to actually read books on display screens,” he said.

What e-book publishers have failed to realize so far is that they’re not just selling the content, they’re selling the reading experience, Wilcox said. That’s why people have been unwilling to pay the price that many publishers are charging.

“The publishing industry has not yet figured out what they want to do with their book readers. They’re more interested in protecting their intellectual property and their price points than they are about figuring out how this market works. They also have priced these books in a way that’s totally inappropriate,” Wohl said. “Publishers have a little while to figure out that they need a new pricing model.”

But Wilcox said with the E Ink technology, the user experience will be improved, and publishers unwilling to lower their price point too drastically, won’t have to go as low as they would with existing e-books.

“E Ink will help close the price gap, because it will give people a better reading experience.”

But paper will never disappear, Wilcox said, because it will always be important for archival purposes.

“This (E Ink) is great for information that’s changing,” he said.

He also believes the technology will have broader ramifications for society.

“My main hope is that we can reverse the trend where everybody’s attention span appears to be getting smaller and smaller. Over time people have a lot less patience. And I really believe it’s damaging to the level of discourse. And I hope that with technology like ours, we’re going to return reading to one of the most efficient and effective forms of communication. One reason people lose attention is because it strains your eye. It’s hard to concentrate on a screen that’s shooting light at you.”

Rich Gold already believes the amount of time we spend reading has increased, thanks to the Web. The problem is, we don’t view it as reading.

“The Web is essentially a reading machine, sure there are images, but most of your time is spent looking at text.

“We have a stilted view of reading. We almost always think of reading in terms of novels – 20th Century novels, which have no images,” said Gold, the manager of research in experimental documents at Xerox’s PARC.

Nineteenth Century novels, however did have images, and the advent of e-books, may bring back images to books, and add sounds, animation and video.

E-books can be used to create a whole new set of functionalities, Chignell agrees. Hypertexts is one example, and books with multimedia content ingrained in them is another.

People used to print out information of any length, but that is slowly changing, Gold said. Now people are becoming more accustomed to reading on screen.

“What it is, is that people can’t actually imagine reading novels on screens. But novels are a very peculiar form.

“And it’s likely in my mind that as digital screens become even more prevalent than they are, literary forms and other forms of reading will emerge that are suited to that technology,” Gold said. He’s a firm believer in McLuhan’s philosophy.

“I would certainly agree that the medium really matters,” he said.

“We have all this new media coming down the line, and it creates new genres.”

When television first came along, everyone expected movies to be put on it, but television shows quickly emerged. “The medium actually changes things,” Gold said.

Instead of creating the technology first and then waiting for specialized content to emerge, Gold and his group of researchers decided to create both at the same time.

Gold wanted to explore the way in which technology affects the way he read, so he and his team experimented with different types of technologies, which they exhibited at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

One of the displays he set up was the Speeder Reader, which was based on rapid serial visual protocol. The display looked like a racing game and had a steering wheel, pedal and small screen which displayed one word at a time. The steering wheel let the reader co-ordinate through different columns of text, and the pedal controlled the speed.

“It turns out that using this technology, you can read pretty easily at 700 words per minute, which is much faster than the average person reads – about 300 words per minute,” Gold said. With training, some readers could work their way to 1,500 words per minute. The caveat is that you could only read using that device for about 10 minutes, whereas with a normal book, you can read for hours. Such a device might be good to supply people with small bursts of information in small spaces.