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Taking Stock Of E-paper

OUTLOOK: The technology is just beginning to gain ground for applications such as e-books and in-store signage, but broader uses have yet to appear.

By Linda Rosencrance
September 20, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For years, analysts have been predicting that electronic paper, or e-paper, would set the stage for the paperless office. Until recently, however, developing a paper substitute was not an easy proposition. And even today, business applications of the technology remain limited.

E-paper is a thin, flexible polymer sheet with the look of paper. But e-paper is a bit thicker than regular paper and weighs more because it contains microscopic electronic ink particles sandwiched between two polymer sheets that display as either white or black in response to an electrical charge.

E-paper is reflective, like real paper, so it can be read in any light. It uses no backlighting, as LCDs do, nor does it use an emissive light source, as with a CRT monitor, says Tom Ashley, director of Pivotal Resources USA, a Lexington, Ky.-based research firm that follows the digital printing market.

E-paper is also bi-stable, which means that the display uses power only to change the content. Once the image is created, it stays there, even when the power is turned off, Ashley says.

"Those two main characteristics are what give a paperlike display its good qualities—it's comfortable to read because it's reflective, and the bi-stable aspect allows you to have low power and lightweight batteries so the whole device could be extremely thin and lightweight," Ashley says.

Several companies are developing commercial applications of e-paper technology. SmartPaper, an e-paper technology from Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Gyricon LLC, first appeared in an e-paper pricing-sign system for retail stores in May. The sign is controlled by software that links it wirelessly to in-store pricing databases, says Robert Sprague, chief technology officer at Gyricon, a wholly owned subsidiary of Xerox Corp.

Gyricon's e-paper price signs receive updated pricing information wirelessly for display on retail store shelves.
Gyricon's e-paper price signs receive updated pricing information wirelessly for display on retail store shelves.

"We'll replace the paper pricing signs on each retail rack in retail stores with an electronic paper sign, which is wirelessly networked to the store's central computer so the price on the sign can be updated instantly. And it's always the same as the price in the point-of-sale database," Sprague says.

"This gives IT departments a way to control a lot of signage and information around an entire building or campus from one centralized computing point," Sprague adds.

Gyricon also offers SmartPaper in a line of dynamic message boards, which it sells to hotels, conference centers and large campuses, he says. The message boards sell for $1,295 each.

The E-book

In April, Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corp., Amsterdam-based Royal Philips Electronics and Tokyo-based Sony Corp. together launched their first-generation e-ink display in Sony's e-book reader, the Librie, in Japan. The e-book incorporates the e-ink technology used in e-paper into a traditional display.

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