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Electronic Paper
August 16, 1999
Electronic Paper
image: Xerox PARC

Imagine a single book containing a library’s entire collection, or a newspaper that continually updates itself. Well, researchers are working on just that—a new technology called "electronic paper."

Although it resembles ordinary paper, electronic paper is more akin to a computer screen, and can be reused millions of times. But unlike a clunky PC monitor, electronic paper is ... well, paper thin. And that means it can be used just about anywhere.

"You can imagine a credit card with a small display on it made of e-ink and plastic," says Paul Drzaic, a researcher with the E-ink Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts—one of many companies developing the technology. "Or you can imagine an entire billboard outside flashing messages and animation. The limitation on applications will just be our imagination."

Other potential applications include wristwatches, business cards—even clothing. So you can forget about losing your way in a foreign city. Electronic paper could be sewn into your shirt with an updateable map on the sleeve.

Although you can’t yet purchase electronic paper, the stuff’s already popping up in some Boston stores, as advertising signs. They’re the size of a double bed, but just three millimeters thick. The store’s marketers use pagers to update the sign’s messages.

Updateable newspapers will also use pager technology. Instead of printing a new paper every day, newspapers will broadcast new information to your electronic newspaper across pagers. It’s the ultimate in recycling. Instead of bundling old newspapers and recycling them, you’ll merely refresh your electronic newspaper.

How It Works

Electronic paper diagram
image: E-INK

The secret to electronic paper is in the ink. The ink layer is only a tenth of a millimeter thick, and can be applied to nearly any surface. The ink is composed of microcapsules containing colored chips suspended in oil. Each ink bead acts as a single "pixel". When electrically charged, the pigment chips move up and down—creating the appearance of letters.

Pages can be updated in several ways. One way uses a computer or pager. Xerox is developing another method that uses a so-called "magic wand." The wand, which is actually a wireless transmitter, moves text from one page to another. It’s small enough to fit in your purse.

A Step in the Write Direction

Wand and electronic paper
image: Xerox PARC

Electronic paper offers many advantages:

  • Energy savings: Once the electronic paper’s display has been updated, no power is needed to maintain the display. Traditional computer monitors refresh the screen at 85-100 times per second.
  • Clarity: Electronic paper has a much finer resolution than the 72 pixels per inch used by most computer monitors. In fact, it is possible to attain a resolution as fine as that produced by high-end laserprinters—600 dots per inch.
  • Reduced eyestrain: Since electronic paper does not require constant refreshing, there is no annoying flicker. Like a traditional piece of paper, the surface can be read from any angle, with a comparable contrast between the letters and the background.
  • Convenience: The display will have many of the qualities of paper — thinness and portability. (Most people prefer to curl up with a good paper book, rather than taking their laptop to bed with them to catch up on reading!)

Competing for future market share

Researchers across the globe are competing to bring their own versions of electronic paper to market. Some of the competitors include:

  • The Media lab at MIT has been developing electronic paper technologies for several years. Members of this research group spun off the E-Ink Corporation in 1997 to commercialize their ideas.

  • The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) has been working on electronic paper since 1992. Xerox recently announced a partnership with 3M to manufacture the paper.

  • Cambridge Display Technologies is adapting its liquid crystal display technology to ultimately replace flat-screen displays with its version of electronic paper.

  • Kent Displays, based in Britain, is already positioning itself as a leader in developing electronic books using e-paper.



Elsewhere on the web:

E-ink Corporation

Media lab at MIT includes an animation of how e-paper works.

Xerox Corporation

Kent Displays

Cambridge Display Technologies



produced by STN2


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