Xerox has a particularly keen interest in electronic paper, which would use real paper with a POE backing and could be re-used and recycled with different content.
“We are thinking of paper that looks and feels normal but the information is digital,” said Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president of the Xerox Canada Research Centre (XRCC) in Mississauga.
Although POE may look like a promising technology to reduce paper use, Mahabadi warns predictions made a generation ago about the paperless office came to nought, as the availability of information combined with ubiquitous computers and printers has had the opposite effect.
But a counter-trend is under way with a new breed of workers who’ve cut their teeth on text-messaging and Web surfing and find reading on-screen more ‘natural’ than 20th century types. “We believe the combination of electronic paper and behaviour change will reduce paper use significantly in the future,” says Mahabadi.
But there are many hurdles to overcome before mass-market adoption of the technology can happen at the consumer end.
Traditional LCD display technology has been around for generations and is firmly entrenched in the electronics manufacturing sector, says Info-Tech’s Levy. “Developing POE technology is the easy part – actually moving the world over from where we are now, building conventional LCDs and CRTs, to POE will be a huge change. The closest analogy is the internal combustion engine – it’s hard to move to hydrogen because the infrastructure is too entrenched,” he says.
Entire supply chains have been built around traditional display technology, and manufacturers and their suppliers have not just money but human capital and expertise in sunken investment, he says.
This has constrained creativity and innovation in display technology. “The applications we’ve put these displays to have been limited. They can’t be flexible or bend around corners and so on. There is room now for a next-generation display device that can lay over anything,” says Levy.
Another issue is that conventional display technology is hardly power-efficient. POE uses a fraction of the power needed for screens today. “The typical LCD is a pig for power – it’s the computing equivalent to a gas guzzler,” says Levy. “In order to see colors and contrast in a wide range of lighting conditions, it needs a back-light, and it’s constant, always on.”
Due to the optical nature of the design, POE is much better at using ambient light in a reflective manner without a back-light. In addition, power is only needed when changing states, in marked contrast to traditional display, which requires a constant supply of power no matter what is displayed on-screen.
“With POE, once the pixels for a picture are set, say in a billboard, you can yank the power and it will stay there until you want it to change,” says Levy. “This has huge implications for public display, which will become inexpensive, will require little power, and can be changed remotely instead of requiring a crew.”
Although other companies are also working on similar research, Xerox is closest to a viable technology, says Levy. Intel is also looking into silicon replacements, but the company’s focus is on internal chips for computers, not display drivers. “Intel is running into thermal limits for its silicon technology and is also looking into alternate materials. Plastic is one of them, but whether it’s the be-all and end-all of Intel’s future, they’re not saying.”
POE offers many advantages over current inefficient processes and designs, in terms of savings in resources, power, paper and toxic waste .
“There are so many ways this could benefit the planet, It’s impossible to imagine we wouldn’t embrace it,” says Levy. “I would like to think environmentalists would be all over this thing and would want to move this to reality as soon as possible.”
Read Part I of this article:Roll up TVs in seven years, predicts Xerox