Taking stock of E-paper

For years, analysts have been predicting that electronic paper, or e-paper, would set the stage for the paperless office. Until recently, however, developing a paper substitute was not an easy proposition. And even today, business applications of the technology remain limited.

E-paper is a thin, flexible polymer sheet with the look of paper. But e-paper is a bit thicker than regular paper and weighs more because it contains microscopic electronic ink particles sandwiched between two polymer sheets that display as either white or black in response to an electrical charge.

E-paper is reflective, like real paper, so it can be read in any light. It uses no backlighting, as LCDs do, nor does it use an emissive light source, as with a CRT monitor, says Tom Ashley, director of Pivotal Resources USA, a Lexington, Ky.-based research firm that follows the digital printing market.

E-paper is also bi-stable, which means the display uses power only to change the content. Once the image is created, it stays there, even when the power is turned off, Ashley says.

“Those two main characteristics are what give a paperlike display its good qualities — it’s comfortable to read because it’s reflective, and the bi-stable aspect allows you to have low power and lightweight batteries so the whole device could be extremely thin and lightweight,” Ashley says.

Several companies are developing commercial applications of e-paper technology. SmartPaper, an e-paper technology from Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Gyricon LLC, first appeared in an e-paper pricing-sign system for retail stores in May of last year. The sign is controlled by software that links it wirelessly to in-store pricing databases, says Robert Sprague, chief technology officer at Gyricon, a wholly owned subsidiary of Xerox Corp.

“We’ll replace the paper pricing signs on each retail rack in retail stores with an electronic paper sign, which is wirelessly networked to the store’s central computer so the price on the sign can be updated instantly. And it’s always the same as the price in the point-of-sale database,” Sprague says.

“This gives IT departments a way to control a lot of signage and information around an entire building or campus from one centralized computing point,” Sprague adds.

Gyricon also offers SmartPaper in a line of dynamic message boards, which it sells to hotels, conference centres and large campuses, he says. The message boards sell for US$1,295 each.

The E-book

In April, Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corp., Amsterdam-based Royal Philips Electronics and Tokyo-based Sony Corp. together launched their first-generation e-ink display in Sony’s e-book reader, the Librie, in Japan.

The e-book incorporates the e-ink technology used in e-paper into a traditional display. E Ink’s electronic ink is a proprietary material that is processed into a film for integration into electronic displays.

“For the Librie product, we make our e-ink as a film, a sheet of plastic that gets sold to Philips Electronics. Philips makes the display, and then the display is sold to Sony and put into an electronic reader,” says Darren Bischoff, E Ink’s marketing manager. “We’re part of an enabling component for making that a paperlike reading experience.”

Currently, users can download and store 500 books of about 250 pages each to the Librie e-book reader, which is similar in size and design to a paperback. The cost of the device is approximately US$370, but Sony has no plans to release it outside of Japan.

Both E Ink and Gyricon have developed electronic shelf labels that can change prices automatically. E Ink’s labels are wirelessly tied into the store’s pricing system, Bischoff says.

E Ink’s ultimate vision is to develop a next-generation smart paper, which E Ink calls RadioPaper, in the next several years. “Now we can make something that visually looks like paper, but we want something that feels like paper as well,” Bischoff says.

E Ink’s current e-paper looks like paper in terms of high contrast and a reflective surface that can be read at any angle, he says.

Although e-paper technology is progressing, there are some downsides. One is that e-paper lacks colour, says Pivotal’s Ashley. And while e-ink has been incorporated into displays such as the Librie, the bi-stable e-paper technology can’t support full-motion video because updating or rewriting a page takes too long, according to Kenneth Werner, editor of Information Display Magazine, published by the San Jose-based Society for Information Display.

Today, e-paper is still looking for a killer application. While a few retailers are experimenting with e-paper pricing labels, the technology has yet to catch on. But that could change.

“In three to five years, we’ll see second-generation technologies from the companies that are launching products now that will probably have better characteristics,” Ashley says.

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