SPREADING THE E-INK WORD
SPREADING THE E-INK WORD
2006-02-08 at 9:23:00 am #14141
Spreading the e-word
E-Ink, made of electronically controlled migrating pigments, may change the way we read books, look at clocks and follow the weather
Imagine checking the latest weather update on your refrigerator magnet, then slipping on your flip-flops and shuffling off to the beach with, say, 80 of the books on your must-read list.
It could happen by this summer.
A new “electronic paper” technology called E-Ink will soon be available on two new gadgets. One is an “electronic book” that’s easy on the eyes, and has the capacity for at least 80 novels. The other is a 4-inch weather display that updates every 15 minutes and sticks to the fridge with a magnet.
Nearly as thin as paper, with the contrast and sharpness of a newspaper, E-Ink electronic paper uses millions of embedded “microcapsules” to produce images – all black-and-white for now. But it’s already headed for market on wristwatches, electronic meters, programmable public signs and sales displays.
For Sony, electronic paper solves a problem that has long vexed the publishing industry: how to produce an electronic book that eliminates computer eyestrain and provides something close to the age-old pleasure of the printed page.
“Studies of reading online show that it is 30 percent slower than reading with paper, and the common experience is that it’s tiring … primarily because of [poor] resolution, [low] contrast and, in the case of CRTs [tube-style monitors], flicker,” said Ben Bederson, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“There’s no question that coming up with displays that address those three things … is definitely valuable,” he said.
Lacking on one or more of these counts, past attempts to market electronic book devices and e-books have had only marginal success.
Sony also had to address the fact that CRT and LCD computer screens draw too much power, draining batteries and leaving readers in the dark, or tethering users to a power outlet.
E-Ink’s electronic paper offers the high contrast Sony wanted, plus a resolution of 166 dots per inch – much better than the 80 to 100 dpi typical on laptop screens, though short of a laser printer’s 200.
“It approaches the performance of newspaper, and hundreds of millions of people read the newspaper every day,” said Darren Bischoff, E-Ink’s senior marketing manager.
The Sony Reader “nicely” displays the varied typefaces, photos, graphics and line art, as well as the jacket art designed for hardcover books, said Ron Hawkins, Sony Electronics’ senior vice president for portable reader systems.
And because there’s no constant refreshing, the Reader has no flicker, and consumes no power until the user “turns” the page.
“We’re advertising 7,500 page turns on a battery charge,” he said. “If you read faster, you use up the battery faster.”
UM’s Bederson said the Sony Reader display is narrower and shorter than the ideals for easy reading, “which means the viewer will be navigating too much with the eye from line to line, and with the machine from page to page.” But “it’s in the range of acceptable.”
Bischoff said the text can be magnified to 200 percent, a boon to millions with impaired vision.
The user also benefits from the fact that the Reader’s screen isn’t illuminated from behind; it reflects ambient light the way a printed page does.
And while “our white may not be as white” as the printed page, Bischoff said, “our black is blacker,” and the whole display “exceeds the contrast of a newspaper.”
Hawkins agreed. It’s “very close to reading on a printed page,” he said.
There are no guarantees the Sony Reader will be a hit. The company first used E-Ink in its Librie electronic book device, which was released two years ago in Japan to a tepid reception.
But Hawkins said the Sony Reader is a much-improved update. It has a rechargeable battery instead of C-cells, better contrast, more ports for memory devices and other design changes.
The Reader should be ready for sale this spring, Hawkins said. Prices are expected to be in the $300 to $400 range.
The company is busy lining up publishers who will provide the downloadable, digital versions of their books, at prices perhaps 25 percent below their print versions.
“Content is king,” Bederson said, and, along with ease of use, may ultimately decide the fate of the Reader.
Hawkins said consumers will be able to browse, search, purchase and download e-books online via Sony Connect, much as they do music for their digital music players.
“We’re not trying to, or asserting that this is going to replace print books,” Hawkins said. Some people will always want a hardback volume on the shelf.
“But when you head out on the road, or vacation, the ability to take books … on a device tailored for reading for long periods, we think can be very complementary to printed materials.”
The Sony device will also be able to download and display some personal documents from a PC or the Internet. So workaholics can take their office reading to the beach. Even newspaper content might one day become readable on the Sony Reader, Hawkins said. “I’m sure there are a lot of options beyond just books.”
E-Ink was developed a decade ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, and spun off as a company in 1997. Bischoff says the idea was born when one of the company’s founders finished his book at the beach and despaired at having to leave the strand to buy another.
“‘Why can’t what I’m holding turn into something different?’” he wondered, according to company lore.
“Perhaps laziness is the mother of invention,” Bischoff said.
At the heart of the E-Ink screens are millions of transparent “microcapsules,” or hollow spheres, each about half the thickness of copy paper.
Inside each capsule are specks of white titanium oxide and black pigment similar to that in copy machine toner, all floating in a fluid.
The capsules are sandwiched between two layers of plastic, one of them transparent. In a high-resolution application such as the Sony Reader, the film is bonded to a layer of glass that contains electronic circuitry similar to a laptop screen.
The white specks carry a positive electrical charge. The black specks have a negative charge. And when an electrical charge is applied beneath the spheres, the pigments inside migrate in opposite directions.
Depending on the charge, either the white pigment or the black is repelled from the circuitry side to the transparent side, where it appears to the readers as either a white or black dot.
The device can address a fraction of the capsule, maximizing the display’s sharpness. It can also move only some of the pigment across the capsule, presenting shades of gray to the user.
Taken together, all the millions of microscopic white, black or gray dots form a whole page of letters, numbers or images.
E-Ink says the tiny capsules are carried in a liquid medium that will one day be printable on almost any surface, from glass to paper to fabric, turning dozens of materials into programmable displays.
Bischoff said Sony’s Reader is E-Ink’s biggest client so far, and the first to use E-Ink’s full high-resolution capability. But more manufacturers are finding uses for the technology.
Ambient Devices of Cambridge, Mass., is preparing to market a 4-inch square “Weather Wizard” with an E-Ink display linked by a radio to AccuWeather data. With numbers and icons, it will report current conditions (updated every 15 minutes), and a four-day forecast keyed to the owner’s ZIP code.
Ambient wanted a device that could be read at a glance, from any angle, and from across the room.
“With an LCD screen, you design this ‘cone of viewability’ that you can tune, based on how the device will be used,” said Ambient President David Rose. “With E-Ink, you don’t have to worry about that.”
The Weather Wizard will run for up to a year on two triple-A batteries. It’s expected to sell this spring for about $100. Basic, local weather data would be available for free, without a subscription.
Ambient is also considering E-Ink-based electronic “Post-It” notes for the home or car that could update users with stock prices, traffic conditions, sports scores or e-mail alerts.
“You could have five or six … scattered through your life, dedicated to certain data, with no complexity, no [need for user] interface.” Rose said.
California-based Lexar Media Inc., which makes digital memory devices, has added an E-Ink display to some of its “Jump Drive” USB flash drives.
Lying flat on the drive’s case front, the E-Ink display looks like a mercury thermometer. But it enables users to see at a glance how much capacity remains in the drive without having to connect it to a computer, or even a power source.
Citizen, which makes timepieces, has developed a “bendable” digital clock. And Seiko has a flat, paper-thin digital wristwatch that utilizes E-Ink.
The technology is also used in Europe for electronic signage and point-of sale displays on store shelves – “sale” cards that can be programmed to change their messages or prices.
As promising as books on electronic paper seem to be, there are some cautions for users who take them to the beach.
“From a readability perspective, they’re great to have out in the sun,” Bischoff said. But unlike a print volume, “you don’t want to drop it, slam it on the ground or pack it in a suitcase.”
Oh, and one more thing, said Sony’s Hawkins: “They’re not waterproof.”
On the other hand, neither are real books.