Whether Amazon’s Kindle saves the newspaper business or not remains to be seen. One thing is for sure — the Kindle, which is likely to sell over half a million units this year, has ignited a lot of interest in a technology known as e-paper, which aims to replicate the qualities of ink on paper. Several startups, including Plasticlogic, are chasing what is likely to be a big market. I can’t speak for others but all the hullabaloo over e-paper has piqued my interest, so I decided to find out more.
In doing so I discovered that earlier this month, a group of researchers at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio came up with a new technology that allows them to re-create the brightness and color capabilities of paper-based media. This makes it possible to mimic the experience of glossy magazines such as Vogue and InStyle.
In other words, they’re bringing us much closer to the real thing. The researchers at UC’s Novel Device Laboratories have developed an electrofluidic display technology that uses pigments and ambient light. The technology is being commercialized by a handful of startups including Gamma Dynamics and Polymer Vision. Sun Chemical, a color and pigment maker, is also part of the commercialization efforts.
According to IEEE Spectrum magazine, this is how the technology works:
An electrofluidic display is built from two sheets of plastic. Onto one sheet, mesa-like polymer structures are printed to form pixels. For each pixel…is formed in the polymer and filled with a droplet of pigmented fluid. Surrounding the pixel is a trench cut into the polymer that contains air or oil. The pixels are topped by another sheet of plastic…When there is no voltage between the plastic sheets, the pigment will stay inside the hole, essentially invisible to the naked eye. But when a voltage is applied, the pigment is pulled out of the hole and spread out along the glass, revealing its rich color to the viewer. The air or oil surrounding the pixel prevents the pigment in one pixel from spilling into another. Switching off the power lets the pigment recoil back into the hole.
Some view this as a big step up from the current generation of technologies, notably that it brings massive power efficiencies to displays, efficiencies comparable
compared to those of the e-ink technology used by Amazon’s Kindle. That’s because the displays using the newer tech reflect light instead of emitting it, making them easier to read, even in sunlight. Jason Heikenfeld, director of the Novel Devices Laboratory, tells IEEE Spectrum that use of this technology is not limited to e-paper, but can also be used in cell phones and other places where displays are needed. Of course, they will have a lot of competition. MIT Technology Review lists some of the companies taking distinct approaches to making electronic displays; they includeQualcomm, Kent Display and Opalux.