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Epaper: the flexible electronic display of the future.

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.


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.

Another key element to this ultimate vision of epaper-enabled devices is the fact that two leading epaper technologies from E-Ink and Gyricon--a company formed as a result of Sheridon's research consume very little power They would require only enough energy to update content, not to keep it readable, as is the case with all of today's backlit displays, which also tend to cause eyestrain. But that doesn't mean that backlit and emissive technologies are completely out of the running. Gregg Raupp's team at the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University is currently considering one of each: LCDs and OLEDs.

"The thing that strikes me about epaper is when you combine it with ubiquitous wireless capability," says Outsell analyst Marc Strohlein. "The ability to have a readable form factor that I can access any content that's available over the Web seems like a very interesting application." Wireless connectivity already has enabled a real-world epaper application. Gyricon has used its SmartPaper technology to create SyncroSign message boards. Hotels, restaurants, schools, and conference centers use these signs as mutable message boards in hallways, while some retailers have implemented epaper price tags that can update prices dynamically throughout the store.


However, while these early retail examples are promising, most believe that epaper's full potential won't be realized until flexible displays trickle down to the consumer market. Once there though, there's no end to the possibilities that epaper could enable. "The first opportunity is hands-free operation," explains Raupp, director of the Flexible Display Center. Bischoff seconds this notion by suggesting the possibility of a high-information display curved around a user's wrist like a watch. This application would be very useful to the Flexible Display Center's primary source of funding, the U.S. Army. Raupp continues, "The second opportunity would be the resolution of the conflict between device size and display size." He goes on to cite the potential for scrollable displays that could increase the screen size of cell phones dramatically, no matter how small the cell phone itself shrinks. "The third one is that you will be able to put a display on any surface," he concludes. Determining how exactly flexible epaper will transform consumer electronics in the future can only be speculated upon at this point. "Frankly, the people who make electronics have no experience in designing with flexible displays," says Bischoff. "On the positive side, the sky's the limit. On the other side, it's very hard to define the value for these various applications."

There's also some debate as to what types of content are appropriate for epaper delivery. "I don't see epaper taking on the facsimile of a book," says Strohlein. "People prefer rich media over just text." For reflective epaper, "it's not a compelling use of our technology to think of it as a laptop replacement," says Bischoff. "You start to lose some of the benefits, like ultra-low power consumption and readability." That doesn't mean that the technology will never be able to produce full-color video images, although "it's not likely to be a TV replacement in the next five to ten years," he says. "There is the possibility, though, of having spot video used to enhance the user experience from an interface perspective."

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 LIBRIe. While praised for its clear, readable display, the LIBRIe 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.


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."


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."

Putting the "E" in Epaper

There are two types of technologies vying for epaper dominance: reflective and backlit/emissive. Here's a brief description of how they work:


ELECTRONIC INK--The principle components of electronic ink are rail lions 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."

Unlocking the Doors to Unlimited Content

While the LIBRIe'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.

Companies Featured in This Article

E-Ink Corporation

Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University http://researchpark.

Gyricon, LLC

Open eBook Forum

Outsell, Inc.

Plastic Logic Limited

Shore Communications, Inc.

Sony Corporation

Xerox Corporation

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Author:Daily, Geoff
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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