E Ink’s Electronic Paper Displays See Gradual Growth, New Competition

The digital revolution hasn’t changed the fact that new printing technology spreads slowly. Johannes Gutenberg, for example, first used metal movable type to publish his famous Bible in 1455, but it wasn’t until 1480 or so that letterpress printing became widespread in Europe, and England didn’t get its first printing press until 1489.

The folks at E Ink are hoping it doesn’t take quite that long—a quarter century or more—for their electronic paper technology to catch on. Nonetheless, the decade-old company is prepared for the long haul. On Tuesday, I met with Dave Jackson, E Ink’s director of marketing and planning. He told me that after years of development work, 2006 was finally “the year of transition from prototyping to mass production.” This year and next, he says, will see the company’s high-resolution, lower-power display technology start to turn up in a range of commercial gadgets, from wristwatches and e-book reading devices (including a new one from Sony) to laptops (where they’re being used as secondary screens for Windows Vista’s Sideshow feature) and USB flash drives (where they function as capacity indicators).

Sony PRS-505It’s been a long journey. Cambridge-based E Ink was founded in 1997 by MIT Media Lab physicist Joseph Jacobson and two Media Lab students; since then, it’s been the subject of hundreds of enthusiastic articles by technology journalists, including myself. Rather than pen yet another explanation of Jacobson’s technology, I’ll just quote from a review of the E Ink-equipped Sony PRS-500 reading device that I wrote earlier this year for MIT’s Technology Review:

“Their clever idea: sandwich millions of tiny, liquid-filled microcapsules between two layers of electrodes, the top one transparent. Floating inside each microcapsule are thousands of positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles. A negative charge applied at a given electrode on the lower layer pulls the white particles to the bottom of nearby microcapsules and pushes the black particles to the top, creating a black mark beneath the transparent electrode; clusters of these marks make up the equivalent of a black pixel in an LCD screen. This held out the promise of both higher resolution (since the pixels can be made smaller than those in LCDs) and longer battery life (since the particles stay in place, without any further electricity use, until the user calls up the next page).”

To repeat that last point, E Ink’s electronic paper—actually, the company is calling the latest version “VizPlex Imaging Film,” to distinguish it from other emerging brands of e-paper—has two big advantages over LCDs: a resolution approaching that of newsprint and zero power consumption between rewritings. But it also has two big downsides: First, it’s a monochrome technology. (Up to 16 levels of gray are possible, but color microcapsule-based displays are still years away.) And second, it takes about three-quarters of a second to refresh a VizPlex page, due to the need to thoroughly “erase” capsules that are in an in-between gray state. That’s an improvement over previous versions of the film, which took a second or more to refresh, but it’s still far too slow for purposes such as video. In situations such as Sony’s e-book devices, the erasing process also results in a momentary but jarring flash every time the user “turns” the page.

Lexar JumpDrive MercuryE-book devices remain the flagship application for E Ink’s films. Sony just came out with its revamped PRS-505 (which has a much more elegant design than the PRS-500, judging from the unit Jackson showed me), and Jackson says half a dozen other companies, including Amazon, will introduce devices based on E Ink’s technology over the next few months. But E Ink has also been busy adapting VizPlex for other applications where monochrome is all that’s needed and refresh time isn’t an issue. One example is Motorola’s MotoFone, a thin, light, and inexpensive cell phone with an incredible 12 days of standby time. Another is Lexar Media’s JumpDrive Mercury USB flash drive, which uses a tiny E Ink display to show how much memory is left on the device. Jackson says VizPlex displays will soon be incorporated into credit cards, where they will be used to display temporary security passcodes (ever-changing versions of the static codes now printed on the back of many cards).

Though E Ink makes the particle-filled microcapsules, it is still largely an R&D house, not a manufacturer. Five rounds of financing, including one that just ended in September, have netted the company an eye-popping $150 million in funding, mainly from strategic industrial partners such as Air Products and Chemicals, Intel Capital, Motorola, Philips Venture Capital Fund, and TOPPAN Printing Company of Japan. The strengths these investors see may lie partly in a system of 120 issued patents and more than 100 pending ones. In its spring 2007 ratings of the patent portofolios of U.S. corporations, Chicago’s Patent Board ranked E Ink 26th out of 500 companies.

But the company is still far from conquering its category, and it faces competitive dangers along the way. For example, Qualcomm, the San Diego-based telecommunications chipmaker, has developed a prototype e-paper system that uses microelectromechanical switches to control interference between visible wavelengths of light, producing color images that can be rewritten in tens of microseconds—more than fast enough for video. And old-fashioned color LCD displays keep coming down in price—meaning that for the time being, E Ink’s films will remain premium products, employed as much for their novelty as for their quality.

Nonetheless, “It’s a fun time to be here,” Jackson says. “We’re getting the bugs out, and we’ve got a lot of customers that we’re shipping to.” If the devices that use E Ink’s films start to see significant consumer uptake, the company could start building up a value that’s not just on paper.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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