Most shoppers who visited the Macy's department store in Bridgewater, N.J., between June, 2001, and this past March likely missed the significance of a dozen or so unusual signs in the center aisle of the kids' section. The two-color, 11-inch by 14-inch placards looked much like ordinary paper signs: Their large font showcased product names and prices. But they were really flat-panel displays, whose messages could be changed wirelessly -- devices that as recently as a few years ago would have been considered the stuff of science fiction.
The displays used so little power that three AA batteries could have run one for more than a year -- one hundredth the power usage of today's average computer display. With different background electronics that are still being developed, these rigid displays could even one day be rolled up or folded, and carried around like a piece of paper.
The Macy's signs, from privately held Gyricon Media in Ann Arbor, Mich., may herald a new era in display technology. As little as two years from now, consumers may be able to buy computer displays that look and feel like a newspaper. After you read the news you've downloaded from your favorite Web site, you might press a button on the "paper's" edge to view your schedule for the day and your e-mail that arrived overnight.
Or you might switch on another product with the same advanced screen technology: An e-book that goes months between recharges or a cell phone whose screen won't break when dropped.
The screens that could make all of this come true already exist (though they can't yet be folded or rolled). Developed separately by Gyricon and by E Ink in Cambridge, Mass., they're paper-thin and easy to read on -- they don't wash out in direct sunlight, according to the two companies. They're also more energy-efficient than today's displays because, thanks to their technology, which imprints a picture on the material the screens are made of, they don't require a bulky back light to show an image. And, because the text is imprinted in the material, these displays can retain text for days on their screens.
E Ink, started by an Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab researcher and his students, has bet on a display containing millions of microcapsules, each smaller than a human hair in diameter. Every capsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. Whenever a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the capsules -- and the user sees white spots on the screen. A positive charge, meanwhile, drives black particles to the surface. Applying different charges to various parts of the display forms text on an extremely thin screen. On June 6, E Ink demonstrated a display that's half the thickness of a credit card.
Meanwhile, Gyricon's SmartPaper uses tiny beads to achieve similar results. Half of each bead is painted in one color (say, white), while the other is covered in a different color (for example, black). A negative or positive electric charge forces each bead to turn a different side to the screen's surface -- and form images or letters. This technology was developed at the legendary Palo Alto Research Center in California. In fact, Gyricon is a Xerox (XRX ) spin-off and is majority-owned by the printer and copier company.
At least for the near term, Gyricon and E Ink foresee different uses for their electronic paper. Gyricon will concentrate on making store signs and only later pursue the market for portable electronic and wireless devices, says Chief Technology Officer Bob Sprague. Big stores spend thousands of dollars on updating paper signs each week, and e-paper signs, which can be changed wirelessly, earn back their investment within one year, Sprague claims. In 2003, Gyricon will manufacture up to 1 million store signs and ultimately plans to take a significant slice of the $15 billion-a-year market, he says.
E Ink is going after the display market for cell phones, e-books, and electronic newspapers, where e-paper's low power consumption and lighter weight would allow for new or less bulky devices, says James Iuliano, E Ink's president and CEO. The potential market for portable displays is gigantic. Worldwide cell-phone shipments will grow from 400 million in 2001 to 545 million in 2005, according to market researcher Gartner.
E Ink's partners and/or investors include cell-phone handset makers Motorola (MOT ) and Philips, communications equipment and components producer Lucent Technologies (LU ), and publisher Gannett (GCI ), which owns 110 daily newspapers, including USA Today. Already, Philips plans to put out a personal digital assistant (PDA), based on E Ink's technology, in the first half of 2003.
Both Gyricon and E Ink's approaches represent a major advance from current liquid-crystal displays and cathode-ray tube displays. CRTs are too bulky for smaller applications, like cell-phone screens, and they consume a load of power. LCDs, which are used in everything from laptops and TVs to wristwatches, have many drawbacks compared with e-paper: They require a back light (and thus use more power than e-paper). And they're inflexible, since they're made of crystals trapped inside two glass panels.
E-paper is also a step forward from the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays that are just making their way into the market for use in cell phones and PDAs. Like e-paper, OLEDs, which use an organic thin film coated in plastic, can be bent, are less likely to break than an LCD, and don't need a back light to show images. But OLEDs can consume 100 to 1,000 times the power of E Ink's e-paper, contends Michael McCreary, vice-president for research and development at E Ink.
STILL TOO COSTLY.
Keep in mind, however, that although Gyricon's SmartPaper can deliver the resolution of an average desktop LCD display, its image quality trails that of CRTs, OLEDs, and the better LCD screens. "Each of [these technologies] has its own applications," says Leslie Polgar, president of display products at Eastman Kodak (EK ), which came up with OLED technology. Thus, OLEDs could eventually replace LCDs as the mainstay of desktop computers and laptops. But e-paper could likely make splashes in e-books and e-newspapers, he says.
Of course, to succeed, e-paper has to come down in cost, says Charlie Howe, an analyst with Forrester Research. Initially, Gyricon's Sprague estimates that his company's e-paper might cost as much as an LCD screen. Its life span would have to improve, as well. For now, both OLED and e-paper displays last for only 10,000 to 30,000 hours of active use -- fine for mobile phones, but not for desktop computers. A typical desktop monitor can carry on for 100,000 hours or more.
Moreover, flexible displays won't become common until the transistors affixed to their backs become bendable -- and cheap. E Ink has already experimented with organic, flexible components created at Lucent. E Ink should release its first truly flexible displays in 2004 or 2005, says Iuliano.
Getting electronics manufacturers to adopt the technology could be a challenge, too. The world's largest cell-phone maker, Nokia (NOK ), is still focused for now on improving LCD technology, according to the company. And computing giant IBM (IBM ), which experimented with E Ink's technology in 2001 -- and was impressed -- plans "to try to push LCD [technology] as far as we can" before considering an alternative, says Bob Wisnieff, manager of package integration and prototyping with IBM Research.
Still, e-paper has reached the point where it's more than a dream. And it could be ready for prime time when opportunity comes knocking.
By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.