Uses for Electronic Ink

The Holy Grail of electronic ink technology is a digital book that can typeset itself and that readers could leaf through just as if it were made of regular paper. Such a book could be programmed to display the text from Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," and once you've finished that tale, you could automatically replace it by wirelessly downloading the latest "Harry Potter" book from a computer database. In May 2000, E Ink CEO Jim Iuliano predicted that electronic books could be possible by 2003 or 2004. Xerox has introduced plans to insert a memory device into the spine of the book, which would allow users to alternate between up to 10 books stored on the device.

Just as electronic ink could radically change the way we read books, it could change the way you receive your daily newspaper. It could very well bring an end to newspaper delivery as we know it. Instead of delivery people tossing the paper from their bike or out their car window, a new high-tech breed of paper deliverers would simply press a button on their computer that would simultaneously update thousands of electronic newspapers each morning. Sure, it would look and feel like your old paper, but you wouldn't have to worry about the newsprint getting smudged on your fingers, and it would also eliminate the piles of old newspapers that need recycling.

Prior to developing digital books and newspapers, E Ink will be developing a marketable electronic display screen for cell phones, PDAs, pagers and digital watches. E Ink has already received financial backing from communications giant Motorola. Electronic ink displays would have several advantages over current display technology, including:

  • Low power usage
  • Flexibility
  • Readability

E Ink unveiled its first product using electronic ink -- Immedia large-area displays -- in 1999. These large signs draw only 0.1 watts of power, which means that the same power required to run a single 100-watt light bulb could power 1,000 Immedia signs. E Ink said that in electronic devices, electronic ink would use 50 to 100 times less power than liquid crystal displays because electronic ink only needs power when changing its display. For this same reason, a digital book can display the same text for weeks without any additional charge applied to it.

Electronic ink can be printed on any surface, including walls, billboards, product labels and T-shirts. Homeowners could soon be able to instantly change their digital wallpaper by sending a signal to the electronic ink painted on their walls. The ink's flexibility would also make it possible to develop roll-up displays for electronic devices.

Another advantage electronic ink has over traditional computer displays is its readability. It looks more like printed text, so it's a lot easier on the eyes. However, both Xerox and E Ink have to improve the resolution of their products for them to be viable in book or other small-print publications. Xerox has already made a display that has a 200 dots per inch (dpi) resolution, which is more than twice the resolution of an average LCD display. Lucent's printable transistors should allow E Ink to increase the resolution of its products to resemble the resolution of a printed book.

The developers of electronic ink don't expect people to throw all paper out or discard their computer monitors the instant these products hit the market. Instead, electronic ink will initially co-exist with traditional paper and other display technologies. In the long run, electronic ink may have a multibillion dollar impact on the publishing industry.