Paper Gets A Make-Over
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If you are just looking to take a little reading material away with you, you don’t want to be bothered with one of those bulky iPod Nano’s with a tiny screen, you need something light, foldable and with much better battery life.

Is the futuristic dream of electronic paper finally upon us? Could we soon live the dream of electronic books with real pages we can flick though on the train or on the beach? The dream of books we can recharge with new content. Perhaps books that go find content for us. The sort of content that moves and changes depending on the time, the day or the place we look at them?

Okay, so we might be a little way from that sort of personalisation yet, but there is certainly progress on the paper front and by the time the display materials make it to prime time, I’m sure Google will work out what content we want.

Between now and then we’ll likely see the emerging electronic paper technologies turning up in some surprising places. Sony already has its LIBRI_ electronic book in the market in Japan. It’s the type of eBook application most people would think of when they think “electronic paper”.

But this sort of application could possibly be the last place you will see the widespread use of electronic paper. The first applications will probably be more oriented to display advertising and information kiosks where trhe relatively high cost can be justified. We are also likely to see electronic paper turning up as product packaging where, again, the high cost is justified. Then, believe it or not, the next most likely place we could see this technology is on mobile phones, digital cameras, or maybe in cars.

Then there’s also a relatively easy market for electronic books to be used as maintenance manuals and the like which change frequently.

There are several companies around the world working on viable technologies for e-paper. The Sony LIBRI_ uses an electronic Ink technology from US-based E Ink. Fujitsu has a project in R&D as does Siemens. The progress is attracting others too.

The printer subsidiary of Seiko Epson has committed to produce electronic paper after Seiko partnered with E Ink to produce the world’s first paper watch earlier this year. The link up between Epson’s inkjet printing prowess and E Ink’s electronic ink are compelling and with Epson’s inkjet printer and LCD businesses in the doldrums and facing a 50 per cent drop in profit this year, the company is eager to find new pastures on which to graze.

E Ink was born out of the MIT Media Lab and commercialised by a series of venture capitalists and technology partner/investors. So far only US$65 million has pumped into the company and it already has some viable product hitting the market. The company just announced it has teamed up with LG.Philips to prototype a 10.1-inch flexible electronic paper display which is less than 300 microns thick and as flexible as construction paper. The paper runs at SVGA (600×800) resolution at 100 pixels per inch. The contrast ratio with 4 levels of greyscale is 10:1.

The LG.Philips material is actually a steel foil, rather than plastic or paper, though the technology is still TFT. A pilot run of the material is being manufactured at one of LG Philip’s LCD plants, no doubt with the assistance of TFT filter specialist and E Ink investor Toppan. The other E Ink investors are an interesting bunch including Philips, The Hearst Corporation, Universal-Vivendi and Motorola.

One of the key advantages of the E Ink e-paper is that it doesn’t require power to maintain its image. Other technologies such as the Siemens chromatic prototypes require printed batteries that only last a couple of months and so would be more suitable for packaging. Siemens plans to make its e-paper widely available by 2007. The displays operate using electrochromic materials which absorb different wavelengths of light when electrical voltages shift charges in their molecules.

Fujitsu’s e-paper is made form three displaying layers – red, blue, and green so has the advantage of not requiring a colour filter or polarising layer. The colour is said to be significantly more vivid than conventional reflective-type LCDs.

The E Ink technology looks like a printed page and maintains a constant contrast ratio under different lighting conditions. The core technology is aimed at handheld devices with the image retention capabilities reducing energy consumption 100 times lower than a standard LCD. Think – cameras, ATMs, kiosks, GPS, smartphones, PDAs, wireless tablets and signage.

The company points out that virtually any surface could be printed with its electronic ink – including paper! The smart ink is made up of microcapsules suspended in a liquid carrier medium. The ink is printed onto a sheet of plastic film that is laminated to a layer of circuitry. The circuitry forms a pattern of pixels that can then be controlled by a display driver. The little spheres have charged transparent and black particles in them which line up as the circuitry dictates. The ink is flexible enough that, if printed on a sheet of plastic, can actually be rolled around a pencil. To make the image colour, the company has to apply a colour filter, which is Toppan’s speciality.

Tie all this together with Epson’s recently developed a flexible TFT-Static Random Access Memory (SRAM) and you have a handy set of components for small, light, and flexible electronic devices.