Epaper: The Flexible Electronic Display of the Future

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Since the advent of television, human beings have become increasingly comfortable receiving information via a backlit screen, albeit primarily in video form.

The dawn of the digital age radically increased the number and type of screens in our everyday lives, while also making commonplace the consumption of text-based content electronically. But despite displays getting smaller, brighter, and more energy-efficient, they pale in comparison to the portability, readability, and feel of paper—still the medium of choice for the printed word.

In the mid-'70s, Nicholas Sheridon coined the term "epaper" while researching alternative displays at Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center. He envisioned an electronic display that would have the readability of paper—with a reflective surface rather than the emissive display of computer monitors and cell phones—as well as the same flexible form factor. Today, this flexible technology's still relegated to demonstrations in the laboratory, but the objective is for epaper to be mass-manufactured cheaply enough that it can be plastered anywhere and everywhere.

From the perspective of content distributors, this means that the number of screens on which content can be viewed will increase exponentially, although it may not affect the channels through which this content is currently distributed. For advertisers, epaper will be a major enabler of the movement towards contextual, personalized advertising. What follows is a look into the effects of epaper on the digital content distribution industry as well as a status report on the current state of epaper technology.

Who Needs Paper?
Despite repeated promises of a paperless office, paper continues to be the primary method of distributing and viewing textual content, and with good reason. "The paper that we read today is a fantastic display—lightweight, easy to read, and rugged—except for the fact that it's completely static," says Darren Bischoff, senior marketing manager at E-Ink, which manufactures electronic ink imaging film. The challenge, he continues, is "how do you make something that's dynamic but also has some of these visual and physical characteristics of paper."

On the road to this goal, "there's a continuum of flexible display capabilities," says Bischoff. "The first stop on that continuum is really something that is likely rigid, but thin, light, rugged, and shatterproof." He goes on to give the example of a PDA that you could drop without breaking the display. "The next stop is going towards things that are curved or conformable," he continues. "Then the third area is called ‘repeat flexible,' which can take some amount of flex. The ultimate vision is the scrollable display." A scrollable display would allow a cell phone to have a five-inch screen that could roll up into a much smaller form factor.

Not surprisingly, the consumer technology most visibly tied to the evolution of epaper is the ebook. In fact, the first consumer epaper product to hit the retail market—albeit only in Japan—was an ebook, Sony's LIBRIé. While praised for its clear, readable display, the LIBRIé has yet to take off partially due to customer complaints over the limited amount of content accessible from the first-generation device. "The ebook market is at a spot now where we're going to see a big transition from how people are currently reading ebooks to how they're going to in the future," says Nick Bogaty, executive director of the Open eBook Forum. "The ebook market quarter over quarter is growing 20%-30% both in terms of units and revenue. The introduction of new devices that make reading more enjoyable will continue to accelerate that growth."

The primary obstacle to the development of mass-produced epaper is the manufacturing process and expense of today's electronics. Eventually, the hope is that epaper—electronics and all—would be able to be printed in a manner similar to how paper is printed on today. E-Ink has recently partnered up with Plastic Logic, a leading developer of printed flexible thin film transistor arrays. They've made an announcement that they plan on scaling up printable electronics to full-scale production by 2007. Once this process is in place, epaper could be manufactured cheaply enough to act as a disposable display, and you might be surprised at how close we are to this reality. "If you're talking about something that's blinking on a cereal box, those are things that could be based on very simple electronics and which could be seen in the next three to five years," says Bischoff.

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