Why Xerox's Erasable Paper Isn't On the Market (Yet)

At least since 2006 or so, Xerox has heralded its invention of

At least since 2006 or so, Xerox has heralded its invention of “erasable” paper, but it hasn’t yet hit the market. And the company hasn’t said when it will.

I sat down yesterday with Xerox’s Stephen P. Hoover, who oversees innovation projects at Xerox’s Research Center in Webster, NY, and asked him about it—and he very honestly discussed the challenges of bringing groundbreaking products to market. The narrative offers lessons on how to balance publicizing exciting new inventions and how and when to deliver them.

Hoover told me that there have been internal debates--polite of course--on when to release the product, which looks and feels like regular paper but darkens when exposed to light, similar to eyeglass lenses that adjust with sunlight and shadows. Text and images temporarily appear on the paper, via a projected light source in the shapes of letters and forms. Then they fade over time (Xerox has said between 16-24 hours), and the paper can be re-used again.

Why was there debate over when to release the eco-friendly paper, which has gotten a ton of buzz? The company is still working with its clients to assess their needs not only in terms of the paper itself, but also its pricing. Will offices and consumers alike pay more for paper that they can re-use, rather than much cheaper paper that they can simply stick in the recycling bin? This is the type of question that Xerox sales reps and marketing types are asking them before releasing it.

"We're in the midst of working with customers to help us decide," Hoover said. "We went out early with the tech. So now we're learning how and when to release a new tech and manage expectations." He said that technically, Xerox researchers are also experimenting on how to have the printed words and pictures last as long as 3-5 days (versus only one), to better tailor a final product based on what customers indicate is appropriate for real-life use.

Hoover told me that Xerox just hired a market research firm to help conduct in-person focus groups, which the company still finds helpful even in the age of online crowdsourcing for customer opinions. Still, he said that Xerox is also paying attention to Web comments on its erasable paper project. He said he and his colleagues believe that in-person focus groups still provide better "qualitative" feedback, so that's why Xerox sticks with them, but that the Web is best for the quantitative, or statistical, research. He said it's easier to get a sense of what customers' voices might seem more logical in person, versus written comments online, which can at times seem extreme.

So I don't have any news on when Xerox's erasable paper (see below) will make it to stores. But thanks to Hoover, we have an anecdote of how a major company with a long history of innovation is currently tackling the challenges of inventing, publicizing, and then releasing a radical new product.

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