Digital Ink: Printable
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.
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.
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.
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.
An even more basic question
remains: Can consumers wean themselves away from paper and embrace these “gee-whiz” display
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
“There’s no industry we can’t go into.”