Electronic paper gets its bearing

IMAGINE DOWNLOADING the daily news onto a paper-like transparent sheet and carrying it around to read whenever you want, wherever you want -- and then doing the same thing with the same sheet every day.

Electronic ink has been in development since the 1970s, but e-paper products have only recently seen the light of day. Both E Ink, in Cambridge, Mass., and Gyricon Media, which was spun off from the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) last December, are working on e-paper technology. Specifically, e-paper is a paper-like sheet made up of thousands of microcapsules that are electrically charged to display white or black ink, or any other pair of colors.

"Imagine a flat-panel display that's like an overhead transparency," says Russ Wilcox, E Ink's vice president and general manager. "It's a unique technology that is like transistors on a sheet of plastic."

Enterprise uses of e-paper could range from reusable technical manuals to displays for handheld devices, and Wilcox says e-paper is something of a cross between broadcast and print. Wilcox notes that "paper is a much better medium than electronic displays. [But] we bridge the gap."As for e-paper's advantages over LCD technology, Wilcox ticks off a compelling list. "It's five times brighter, it uses 99 percent less power, it's more portable, has a bigger screen, and longer battery life. It's thinner and lighter, has a higher resolution, and gives workers more freedom. And it gives IT a new tool at their disposal."

E-paper: Past, present, and future

It may seem a futuristic technology, but electronic paper has been in the works since 1975, when Xerox PARC researchers started developing electronic-ink technology. Development started in earnest during the 1990s.

April 1996: MIT's Media Lab starts work on electronic-paper prototype

April 1997: E Ink is founded to commercialize MIT's electronic-paper displays

May 1999: E Ink debuts Immedia electronic-paper display products

Nov. 2000: E Ink and Lucent Technologies demonstrate first flexible electronic products

Dec. 2000: Gyricon Media is spun off from Xerox PARC

Feb. 2001: E Ink teams with Philips Components to develop a high-resolution display for smart handhelds

March 2001: Gyricon introduces SmartPaper technology

June 2001: Macy's is scheduled to test SmartPaper for in-store signage use

Late 2001: Expected delivery of E Ink/Philips handheld prototype

2002/2003: E Ink electronic-paper handheld devices expected to become available to users

Mid-2000s: Possible debut of E Ink's Radio Paper wireless electronic publishing technology

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

E Ink's original implementation of e-paper technology was a large-area display product called Immedia that was designed for use as an advertising medium in retail stores. The Arizona Republic newspaper used Immedia displays in grocery and convenience stores last year to broadcast news headlines and increase the paper's brand awareness, but the tests were met with mixed results.

"The technology worked fine, but the displays didn't increase single-copy purchases," explains Gina Zestrijan, retail merchandising manager at the Phoenix-based newspaper. Zestrijan says e-paper implementations will be expensive in the beginning and characterizes the technology as "on the novelty level and not utilitarian yet." E Ink is currently retooling its display offerings and turning its focus to the more lucrative handheld display market. The company recently entered a joint venture with Philips Components of the Netherlands to develop electronic-ink displays for handheld devices. Barry Young, vice president and CFO of DisplaySearch, a research company in Austin, Texas, says E Ink's products will be successful if they can become the equivalent to looking at a piece of paper. Young characterizes the new E Ink handheld technology as Overy readable and pretty impressive."

Meanwhile, across the country in Palo Alto, Calif., Gyricon Media unveiled its electronic-paper technology at a trade show last month aftter more that two decades in development.

Gyricon's SmartPaper is initially intended for use as point-of-purchase displays in retail settings. The technology could fulfill the long sought-after desire of mass retailers: to electronically change product prices on the store floor and the cash register at the same time.

"The true advantage [of SmartPaper] is the ability to control pricing from a central location," notes Bob Sprague, Gyricon's interim CEO. "The system could be controlled from corporate headquarters through a central computer via the Internet so stores could put on dynamic sales."

SmartPaper, combined with Gyricon's Maestro SignSystems software, is slated to make its retail debut in the children's department this June at the Macy's store in Bridgewater, N.J. The test program will include a dozen 11-by-14-inch display signs, and if all goes well, Macy's will look into expanding the system to other departments and stores.

Ben Diss, director of information systems at Macy's headquarters in New York, says he is excited about the SmartPaper technology.

"We think it will enhance pricing integrity and allow us to better control what's being displayed in the stores," he says. Although the initial prototype installation will be a manual system, Diss looks forward to the day when the system can be integrated with the company's pricing database.

Future promise?

Paper will never go away, but E Ink and Gyricon Media continue their search for the killer app that could help electronic paper fulfill its promise as a killer technology.

"Our strategy is to first take SmartPaper to the retail signage market, which fits very well with our technology," says Sprague, who sees the future of Gyricon and e-paper extending beyond retail into other applications, including maps, construction drawings, wallpaper, and even clothing, such as Army camouflage.The Arizona Republic's Zestrijan remains skeptical of e-paper as an effective medium, noting that she "can't fathom that this technology is going to be able to do electronic publishing, at least not in its current state." Zestrijan says that readability issues, such as the problem of ink fading when the display is exposed to sunlight, need to be resolved first.

"It takes a lot to change the behavior of people. People have their routine of going out to the driveway and flipping through the paper on Sunday morning. And paper is a really cost-effective medium," says David Mentley, senior vice president of Stanford Resources, a display technology research company in San Jose, Calif., adding that nobody has yet implemented the perfect e-paper design.

Mentley does see, however, some success for e-paper if it can overcome just one sizable hurdle: "People will make the leap to electronic paper -- that is, if it works."

This story, "Electronic paper gets its bearing" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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