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Editor: W. Patrick Tandy

March, 2004

 

Digital Ink: Printable Digital Displays

By John Anderson

Computer screens are getting thinner and cell phone displays are improving, but neither one comes with recommended laundry instructions, though they soon may. And before you know it, those pages of your e-book may even actually feel like paper.

Scientists are currently working on developing displays for books, clothing and military applications that are as thin as newsprint and as durable as fabric.

What does the future hold? How about clothing for travelers or soldiers that alters color to fit the environment? Or newspapers that update instantly or books that change content on request? Computer displays so thin they can be manufactured on a roll and cut to size like kitchen foil. Even paper that emits sounds or can that be erased and reused thousands of times.

These aren’t the smart gadgets of fictional spy movies; they are the projects being worked on by emerging electronic-display technologies. And while many of these scenarios are at least 10 years away, some precursor products such as “smart” papers and ultra-thin glass displays will hit the market as early as this year.

Since their debut in the mid-‘90s, electronic books (or e-books) have earned notoriety for being hefty, expensive and not interchangeable among publishers. But in Japan, Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Corp. plan to start selling e-books that promise to be lighter, easier to use and eventually less expensive. Initially, e-books and other displays will be monochrome, but color versions are expected in a few years, the same way cell phones have developed. Content will be able to be downloaded via wireless networks.

The Technology

Researchers at Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center recently devised a technique to “print” plastic transistors similar to the type used to control today’s flat-panel displays. The new process uses semiconductor ink and a modified ink-jet printer. The transistors can be used to produce electronic displays that roll up.

The company E Ink is moving in the same direction with its “Radio Paper.” The goal is to have a display that looks and feels like newspaper but can be updated wirelessly. This product could be ready by 2007 or 2008.

The e-ink is made up of tiny capsules filled with positively-charged white pigment chips and negatively-charged black ones. They respond to electrical charges to create text and images. The printer coats the e-ink onto a thin plastic film.

The applications for these new displays are limitless. One such display could replace stacks of books that weigh down a vacationer’s suitcase or a student’s backpack and provide content that can be updated instantly.

Even a soldier’s uniform could function as a flexible display by automatically changing color to camouflage him as he walks from the jungle onto a dirt road. Likewise, a businesswoman’s suit could switch from navy blue to white as she travels from a cold to a warm climate.

Electronic Fashions

This technology will also open up entirely new applicatons never before open to display technology. Flexible displays will show up in the area of fashion that will including everything from jewelry that can change colors as it is worn to clothing that can morph to match the mood of the wearer. Also, imagine wallpaper in your home that could become a giant display that changes color or pattern at your command.

Military Applications

The potential value of flexible displays certainly isn’t lost on the military. It has been stated that the US Army Research Lab plans to spend $43.6 million over five years on a flexible-display center.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking at ‘immersive imaging,’ where the entire interior of a tent will have displays that can simulate conditions for battle preparation or remote cockpit and field training. Future soldiers will be able to access information on their uniform sleeve. They could view a map or a manual to repair equipment in the field. The goal in 10 to 15 years is to have a flexible backing material that can be printed roll-to-roll like newspapers and then cut to size.

Going Mainstream

An even more basic question remains: Can consumers wean themselves away from paper and embrace these “gee-whiz” display technologies?

As display technologies march forward, so do those for “smart” paper. One type can be electronically erased and rewritten thousands of times by feeding it through a special companion paper. Japan’s Ricoh Co., Ltd., has developed several types of “smart” paper that will be sold this year. Two other Japanese companies, Shinsho Corp. and Majima Laboratory Inc., have developed experimental rewritable paper they say is the first to use color. It also needs its own printer.

T-Ink Inc. of New York is taking a different approach with an electrically conductive ink that can make sounds or light up. It is already being used by McDonald’s Australia in its Happy Meals. The Happy Meal toy lights up as it interacts with ink printed on the meal box or tray liner. Likewise, children using Super Color educational products hear feedback if they write a correct answer to math or spelling questions. The marker they write with activates the conductive ink on the paper.

“The ink is printed on regular, disposable paper,” explains T-Ink’s Andrew Ferber. He says the ink can be printed onto almost anything, including garments, wallpaper, automobiles and devices like cellphones – and it will be washable. “There’s no industry we can’t go into.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: March, 2004

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