Reflecting on Flexible Electronic Displays

Nothing beats paper when it comes to displaying readable text in a comfortable, familiar form factor. That's one of the reasons that the ebook market has yet to take off. Who wants to read a whale of a book like Moby Dick on a minnow of a display like a PDA? So instead of fighting this fact of life, a new, yet not so new, technology has risen to the challenge: epaper.

The not-so-new label comes from the fact that the idea for digital paper actually originated 25 years ago. That said, it remains cutting edge stuff. The foundation of epaper (known as digital paper, SmartPaper, and a slew of other names) is based upon the idea that it's easier for your eyes to read text from a reflective surface—like old-fashioned wood pulp paper—than backlit displays, like those you'd find in your cell phone, laptop, etc. The broader, long-term goal is to develop a display technology that parallels paper in its readability, familiarity, and portability while incorporating the ability to update the display wirelessly. But that's not enough for certain potential users; some want it to be able to take a bullet.

Don't laugh. The idea of military-grade epaper has put nearly $100 million into R&D and the might of the US Army behind it. In mid-February, the Army awarded Arizona State University with a 5-year, $43.7 million cooperative agreement (with a five-year, $50 million option attached) to establish the tentatively named Army Flexible Display Center. Gregory Raupp, newly appointed director of said Center, says, "In addition to the partnership with the Army, we have 16 industry partners, including E Ink, Kodak, Honeywell, and more. Between what we have at ASU and our industry partners, we have the capabilities to evaluate all the available technologies."

Initially, the Center's focus will be on testing the wide variety of existing epaper-technology possibilities (including Electronic Ink, SmartPaper, electrowetting, and oLED). "The Army funding is an enabler," says Raupp. In the long run, the idea is to insert this tech into an integrated system that would include the wireless capabilities mentioned above, according to Raupp.

While all branches of the military have expressed interest in this technology, "the choice of the Army to lead this was very strategic by the federal government," Raupp explains. "The Army was chosen because their needs most resembled those of civilian life," walking around on land and driving cars rather than braving the ocean or sky. "The Army and government want a viable and vibrant flexible display market in the US."

EContent editor, Michelle Manafy, recently stated her belief that the portable content market will not truly take off until an epaper infrastructure reaches the masses. The reading experience, in Manafy's opinion, must better reflect the ease and comfort of paper while incorporating the benefits of mobile content, like real-time content updates. Marc Strohlein, vice president and lead analyst of content software technology at Outsell Inc., couldn't agree more, "I think she's right on target as to the importance of flexible epaper." Although he quickly pointed out the distinction that must be made between information displays and reading applications, "While there's not a clear line between those two, if I'm going to sit down and read a book or a newspaper, I'll do it on paper or online." This is opposed to applications like the one found at's vision of the future, where a man biking through the countryside has a flexible display on his wrist that allows him to watch his heart rate as well as a rather forceful nurse urging him to go faster.

In the meantime, there are a number of companies developing various ways to make epaper a reality. Early this year, Gyricon announced that it had begun trial testing of its rigid-backed SmartPaper technology for use in grocery and retail stores. Replacing static pricing and unintelligent cash registers, Gyricon's system allows stores to update price displays wirelessly, simultaneously doing the same at the checkout lanes. Philips announced its forthcoming release of reflective e-ink displays in handhelds based on E Ink, the company, technology sometime later this year. A few weeks later, they announced plans to mass-produce (to the tune of a million a year) a five-inch display panel for downloading and viewing newspapers and magazines in 2005.

What the next generation of display technologies will look like has yet to be determined, but their future value is obvious. Epaper—especially with the backing of the US Army—may have the flexibility to propel mobile content out of the niche and into the mainstream.