Epaper: The Flexible Electronic Display of the Future

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Opening More Windows
Considering that timeline along with the fact that researchers led by Raupp at the Flexible Display Center plan to be "producing some very early technology concept devices" on flexible substrates by the first quarter of 2005, epaper is well on its way towards becoming a mainstream technology. Once epaper hits the big time and starts influencing the design of new, low-power, easy-to-read consumer devices, the effects it will have on the distribution of digital content will be both subtle and profound.

"Epaper is very good for consumer technology," says John Blossom, principal at Shore Communications. "From the content industry perspective, it's going to be a lot more incremental because the delivery methods will not change as rapidly." Outsell's Strohlein expresses a similar sentiment. "Publishers are going to just look at digital paper as one more platform they can publish to," he says. Epaper will allow publishers to save a significant amount of money though, as they won't have to incur printing and mailing costs. "Since the medium itself is not radically different from its display properties, it's more about driving more content into channels that are already in place," Blossom says.

New delivery mediums also draw more users into the digital content world. "One thing that people tend to forget is that part of the reason that older people don't gravitate towards PDAs, etc., is because they can't read the display," says Strohlein. Epaper "is going to open up that market." Bischoff speaks to the same matter, but expands its scope. "Epaper will encourage people who, because of the display, have previously not read electronic content," he says. "It's just easier to read on a high contrast reflective surface than an emissive display."

Epaper in Context
Despite pronouncements that paper is on its last legs, "paper is not what is dead," says Blossom, "it's the mass-produced publishing model for paper that's dead." He's been witness to an ongoing trend in the digital content industry. "In general, content is moving towards the proliferation of contextualized content objects that are most easily monetized when they flow into the venue where their value is most easily recognized by very specific audiences," he says. The widespread adoption of epaper displays will greatly enhance the reach of digital content purveyors, but "this revolution does not need to wait for epaper. It's already happening today on hundreds of millions of PCs, PDAs, and cell phones around the world," he says. "By the time epaper becomes an affordable and widely used technology, the business models that will exploit this medium to its fullest will already be fairly mature."

It's a mature advertising market enabled by contextual content delivery and cheap epaper displays that worries Strohlein. "When I start thinking about wireless plus contextual advertising plus epaper, if it gets to the right price point, you literally can get it to the point where you can slap up epaper everywhere," he warns. "Then marketing stuff becomes even more ubiquitous than it already is." Blossom speaks to this issue by likening it to the movie Minority Report, in which people are scanned and then fed ads targeted at their particular demographic. "The nice thing about TV is you can turn it on and off," says Strohlein. "We're talking about something that's just going to be embedded into our environment."

At the same time, Strohlein looks forward to the way in which epaper will break the static bonds of paper as it pertains to personal content consumption. "Rather than having to view content as a publisher intends it to be viewed," he says, "there will be opportunities to mix and match content from different sources with ads from both." He goes on to envision a system of content distribution based on RSS feeds, complete with contextual advertising. For Blossom, contextual advertising is what will eventually result in the end of the traditional mass-publishing paradigm of print, not the epaper technology itself. "It's when the display of content can be contextualized for a specific audience and a specific purpose that epaper begins to have some value that takes away it away from print-based ad models," he says. "But there's nothing specific about any of this to epaper. Epaper is just one of many object- and context-oriented content technologies that make it far easier to monetize the context of content than ever before."

Sidebar: Putting the "E" in Epaper

Electronic Ink - The principle components of electronic ink are millions of tiny microcapsules. Each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a negative electric field is applied, white particles move to the top and are visible, while the black particles move to the bottom and out of site. When a positive electric field is applied, the opposite happens. These capsules also can be suspended in the middle, producing different shades of gray. Because of the liquid carrier medium that the microcapsules are suspended in, electronic ink can be printed using existing screen printing technology on a variety of surfaces, including fabric, plastic, glass, and even paper.

SmartPaper - Gyricon's epaper technology works in a similar fashion, although it uses beads that are black on one side and white on the other, rather than the separate monochromatic microcapsules of electronic ink. These beads are encapsulated within pockets of oil on a sheet of transparent elastomer, a polymer with rubber-like characteristics. When an electronic current is applied to these beads, which feature differently charged hemispheres, their orientation flips from either black to white, or vice versa.

LCD - Short for "Liquid Crystal Display," LCDs consist of two sheets of polarizing material with a non-organic, non-emissive liquid crystal solution running between them. An electric current running through this solution causes the crystals to align so that light can't pass through. Since LCDs are neither reflective nor emissive, they require a back lighting system, which accounts for about half of the power requirements for LCDs. Even though they're relatively energy hungry and their screens aren't as readable when compared to the other epaper technologies, LCDs do have the advantage of maturity as it is currently by far the most widely used technology of the four listed here.

OLED - Organic Light Emitting Diodes sandwich organic, carbon-based films between two charged electrodes. When a current is applied, a bright light is emitted through a process called electrophospherescence. These displays do not require back lighting, and are very energy efficient. Not only that, but OLED devices tend to be brighter, lighter, and more equipped to handle video than those built with LCDs. On the downside, "OLEDs are very sensitive to air and humidity," says Raupp. "If they're in glass you can protect them, but there's not a good flexible technology to protect them."

Sidebar: Unlocking the Doors

While the LIBRIé's display, which is based on E-Ink technology, has garnered nothing but rave reviews from its Japanese customers and while Sony spokesperson Atsuo Omagari says, "our business went well as planned so far," there's a feeling amongst industry watchers that its overall customer reviews have been somewhat underwhelming. "People had some concerns over the rental model that was being used," says E-Ink's Darren Bischoff. "It was sort of a closed system that people weren't able to put their content onto." Nick Bogaty of the Open eBook Forum cites Gemstar as an example of an ebook manufacturer that failed at attempting to control the distribution of content themselves.

After receiving feedback from customers regarding these concerns, Sony responded to address the situation. "They began selling with new devices a CD, which contained about 100 Japanese novels on it, as well as some very useful tools," explains Bischoff. Most notable of which was a one-step-simple printer driver, so now whatever can be printed off of a computer can print directly to the device. "That infinitely expands the amount of content available that people can put onto these devices," he says. And having access to large amounts of content is essential to the success of ebooks. "Without the content, nobody's going to want to by an expensive machine," says Shore Communications' John Blossom. "It will help ebooks when there's an all-purpose device that also makes book readers feel comfortable" and which has access to libraries' worth of content.

Sidebar: Companies Featured in this Article

E-Ink Corporation www.e-ink.com
Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University http://researchpark.asu.edu
Gyricon, LLC www.gyriconmedia.com
Open eBook Forum www.openebook.org
Outsell, Inc. www.outsellinc.com
Plastic Logic Limited www.plasticlogic.com
Shore Communications, Inc. www.shore.com
Sony Corporation www.sony.com
Xerox Corporation www.xerox.com

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