Electronic paper is looking like a futuristic display technology that may finally be settling into the mainstream. For example, Seiko is unveiling a watch incorporating the low-power, sheet-like displays. E Ink Corp., the Cambridge, Mass., company that provided the electronic-paper display to Seiko, says it's looking ahead to full-fledged, tablet-sized products for release in the United States. Meanwhile, a pioneer in the field at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, has helped found a Michigan-based startup to sell message-board-sized electronic-paper displays.
"What we're announcing is a watch product where E Ink provides the electronic paper technology and Seiko Epson created a watch with it," Russell Wilcox president and co-founder of E Ink, said in an interview.
Wilcox said he doesn't know whether the watch, which will be sold in Japan for more than $500, will be available domestically. That also didn't happen with an earlier, notepad-sized display, using E Ink technology, which Sony offered in Japan. Soon, however, Wilcox says such products will be emerging in the United States.
"I definitely expect the U.S. market will see the pad application," says Wilcox, who said his company has held discussions about providing electronic-display technology to vendors he declined to name. "What's not announced yet is exactly when that will be available. But there's no doubt in my mind that people will have that product in a reasonable amount of time."
Notepad and newspaper-sized units are the Holy Grail of electronic paper, seen as the real-world implementations which could spur mass-market adoption. "It's portable devices that make reading easier," explained Wilcox. "It's 'radio paper,' the concept that you should have something the size and weight of a pad of paper that let's you look down and see a newspaper or a manual. You want to make it wireless, to be able to access today's news."
Just such a newspaper was exhibited in March at the Expo 2005 electronics trade show in Tokyo. Toppan Printing Co. and NEC used E Ink's technology to create an eight-foot by eight-foot wall-sized newspaper, which displayed updated feeds of Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
Newspapers have long been enticed by the technology, according to Nicholas Sheridon, a senior researcher at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center who invented one of the three main methods for placing an image on electronic paper. "We were approached by several newspaper companies a few years ago," said Sheridon, in an interview, adding that the parent companies of The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune were among the organizations making enquiries. "What they told us was they wanted something 18-inches or 20-inches in length. It would be downloadable from a satellite link, or a cell phone, or a set-top box. At the time, we didn't feel that the technology was far enough along, but there was real interest there."
Now, with electronic-paper products beginning to hit the market, the technology might be ready for a second look. Currently, there are several different methods for placing text images (and, occasionally, graphics) on the thin, electronic display sheets. "Electronic paper is a paperless display medium that uses ambient light to project an image," explained Sheridon. "It can be done with liquid crystals [or] by using black and white particles with different charges, or using beads that are black in one hemisphere and white in the other, which rotate in an electric field."
The closest recent cousin to electronic-paper displays might be "Mira," the code name for a group of portable, wireless displays championed by Microsoft in 2002. The units were essentially dumb terminals, equipped with LCD screens, which allowed users to gain remote access to their PCs via Wi-Fi connections.
However, the Microsoft displays, which languished in the marketplace, were similar in size to notebook PCs and had similar power requirements. In contrast, the thin electronic-paper displays don't require much electricity.
Sheridon has commercialized the "beads" image-forming technique, which he invented, via Gyricon, a start-up in Ann Arbor, Mich., which received launch funding from Xerox PARC. Gyricon markets large sheets of electronic paper for use as signs. "We're selling to universities that use our message boards for athletic events, and to conventions," Sheridon explained. "It's a wirelessly controlled device."
Whether electronic-paper products such as the Seiko watch or Gyricon's signs propel the field to new heights remains to be seen, but supporters of the technology are optimistic. "We see a lot of people who are very actively trying to shape how people will get published documents as easily as they get music on their iPods," said Wilcox.
"I regard this as a technology that will grow very strongly," said Sheridon. "There's a huge investment right now in flexible backplanes—the electronic sheets that address [i.e., control and drive] displays. The market for those backplanes is electronic paper."