Makers of electrophoretic ink discuss how technology that began life as an MIT Media Lab research project is transforming information consumption
Simple demographics are one of the biggest threats to the viability of print. Younger generations consume more and more media with little need for the printed page. Digital display companies are keenly focused on the functionality of their user interfaces, but readability remains an allusive metric for most.
From consumer reports it seems the tablet reading experience on devices such as Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s Galaxy leaves something to be desired. The tablet’s glossy backlit LCD screen is great for watching videos, but reflections tire the reader’s eye and the words are difficult to read outdoors. Emissive displays also draw a lot of power causing tablet batteries to fade after only a few hours in many cases.
On the other hand many avid e-book fans will tell you that a Kindle or Kobo with crisp black type on a paper-white background provides a much better reading experience. Though by no means a replacement for the multi-media friendly tablet, former consumers of the printed page have been increasingly adopting this style of e-reader for ease of reading both indoors and out while enjoying longer battery life. But what makes these e-readers so different from tablets?
The answer is E Ink
E Ink takes its name from its technology – electrophoretic ink – and is the visible component used in Electronic Paper Displays (EPDs). This promising technology began life in 1996 as a research project in the MIT Media Lab before becoming the foundation of E Ink Corporation, which sought to commercialize the digital paper concept as the preferred display for e-readers.
E Ink is made of microcapsules about the diameter of a human hair sandwiched between two thin layers of film containing a transparent top electrode, and a bottom electrode. Each microcapsule contains negatively charged black pigment and positively charged white pigment suspended in a clear fluid. When the top electrode charges positive, the black pigment rises to the surface, morphing the microcapsule from white to black. The microcapsules are bi-stable and reflective – meaning the image will remain on the digital page without electricity and requires only ambient light to be visible. That’s why E Ink displays draw very little power.
E Ink displays are well suited for viewing static images that change sporadically – simulating book, newspaper or magazine pages for example. Because the display reflects natural light, it much more closely resembles the printed page with readability improving as the light gets brighter – working especially well in full sunlight. E Ink Corporation announced new concepts at CES 2015 and demonstrated E Ink products developed by licensees that evolve the digital paper paradigm beyond the e-reader.
New E Ink models
“One of the more interesting products we are showing at CES is the Sony DPT S1 business e-reader,” reveals Giovanni Mancini, head of global marketing for E Ink. “Designed for the business user, this device is the size of an A4 sheet of paper, extremely rugged and weighs only about six ounces.
“The DPT S1 has touch capability, but it also has an extremely responsive digitizer. This is intended for business users who want to take a large number of documents with them, but don’t want the bulk of the paper,” he continues. “Users can annotate documents with their fingertip while in the field, then have the information captured into the document control system back in the office.”
The Sony DPT S1 comes with 4gb storage, capable of carrying thousands of monochrome pages and has a micro SD slot for expansion.
Mancini then demonstrates another innovative use for E Ink in the form of a mobile phone display. The Russian-made YotaPhone is an Android mobile phone featuring a standard high-resolution colour display on the front, and a monochrome E Ink display on the back of the handset.
“The idea is to attach different information feeds, such as email or text messages, that you want to keep monitoring to the E Ink display on the back,” Mancini explains. “This way you don’t have to constantly turn on the screen on the front of your phone and cycle through the various apps to get the information. This really extends the battery life of the YotaPhone because of the very low power consumption of E Ink displays.
“To really conserve power, the user can completely disable the front colour display and get the full Android interface on the E Ink display. You can even use the Kindle App to read books on the back of the YotaPhone!
“Another innovative use of an E ink display can be seen on the Sony Smartband Talk – a sports watch and fitness device that pairs up with an Android phone. The Smartband Talk enables you to track your fitness during the day and get information from your smartphone, all displayed on a controllable E Ink display,” explains Mancini.
While EPDs are already well established in the retail display category, E Ink Corporation announced and demonstrated innovative new solutions at CES 2015 targeting both the indoor and outdoor signage markets.
“These E Ink 32-inch digital displays are great for small businesses such as coffee shops or restaurants, for example, that might want to use them as menu boards,” says Mancini. “They are also well-suited for information displays in public spaces such as bus shelters. Because of low energy requirements, batteries or even solar power can power these E Ink displays without the need to run cables.
“Another thing that we announced at CES this year is our E ink Prism product,” Mancini continues. “We’ve taken our E ink technology and encapsulated many different colours of pigments within the same microsphere and laminated them into a colour changing film to incorporate into architectural products.”
E Ink Corporation demonstrated a 20-foot wall of colour-shifting Prism tiles at CES. Controlled by a PC, these tiles are designed to change colours, providing a different aesthetic and changing the mood of a hotel lobby or an airport terminal.
“Right now this is a concept product for us,” Mancini continues, “created through collaboration with architects and design firms over the past year. We hope to have a public installation of Prism by the end of 2015. We also plan to use Prism in horizontal surfaces such as glass counters or coffee tables.”
Nemesis of print
From the products on display at CES 2015 it’s logical to conclude that E Ink has already done most of the damage it’s going to do to the conventional printed page. After all, e-readers already represent an established market for publishers, and the line has been drawn between those who prefer to read the printed page, and those who choose digital.
Instead, the future of E Ink and Electronic Page Displays lies in enabling the next generation of signage, personal document readers, smart devices and wearable technology – where low-power displays and control surfaces are essential to ensure functionality and energy efficiency.