Ink — I love ink


Robert Dow

Electronic ink or electronic paper (e-paper) was developed in the 1970s by Nick Sheridon at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and it was called Gyricon. Its technical name is electrophoretic display meaning a display that forms visible images by rearranging charged pigment particles (i.e., powder like substances) using an applied electric field.

In the early 2000s the technology began to gain some traction and looked like it could be mass produced, albeit in small sizes. One of its first commercial applications was for the second display on mobile phones, and in 2001 E Ink and Philips Components announced plans to jointly develop high-resolution electronic ink displays for handheld devices such as PDAs and electronic books.

And then it all went quiet.

But at last year’s 3GSM conference (fro mobile phones, in Barcelona) I found the first early production rollup displays from the Philips spin-off, Polymer Vision. Needless to say, this long-anticipated and -wanted technology got lots attention from both the fans and the curious. The product itself is called Readius and is based on the organic/polymer TFT technology Philips invented.

But prior to that Sony released an e-book reader in 2004, when it introduced its first e-paper device, the Librié, in Japan. It didn’t hit the US or Europe until 2006, and it was re-christened Ebook. It’s been the darling of commuters and technophiles ever since. That is until December 2007.

In December, in one of the best executed PR programs since the iPhone, Amazon announced and then released the Kindle. It was the Ebook only better. A slightly larger display, and always on-line for almost instant down loading of books, and web surfing.

Kindle had all the things Sony’s Ebook didn’t; granted, Amazon had two plus years to figure it out. Nonetheless it was sold out the day it went on sale (300k units we were told) and was in such demand (mind you this was just before the holidays) that they were being bid up to $1,500 on eBay (The retail price from Amazon was $399.)

I’m reviewing the product for our Mount Tiburon Testing Labs and that will appear in a week or so on our front page.

But it’s the ink I want to talk about. I won’t go into a lengthy technobabble discussion about the polarization, molecules, powders or polymers, rather I want to speak about how damn great it looks.

The display uses reflected light – just like a book. That’s right, lights out – no more reading. But the display is so sharp and has such a high contrast ratio similar to that of a newspaper, and a very large viewing angle unlike many LCDs, that when people first encounter it they don’t believe it’s not back lit. It also has another interesting characteristic, albeit its use is not clear. The display leaves a ghost-like reanimate of the book on the screen when turned off. I kind of like that, it makes me feel like it’s ready to leap into action and bring the latest thriller to me.

And when its on, it looks like newspaper.
The kindle is a white package with a liquid paper display
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is the wave of the future. By 2014 e-paper made with electrophoretic materials reach almost $2.0 billion in sales, with liquid crystal based e-paper at $1.5 billion and electrochromic e-paper at just under a $1.0 billion.

The next challenge for the liquid ink folks is to produce color. They’ve got red and some green working, but blue is a challenge still. And the color, as of now seems to have slowed the response time of the display down a little. I haven’t heard about the contrast ratios. There have also been some interesting experiments using two color powders and RGBW color filters combined with the powder.

For electronic books I don’t see the immediate need, although one can envision color illustrations and from there how about my entire Batman comic book library on my Kindle?