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Vogue on Your eReader? New E-paper Tech Will Make It Happen

Whether Amazon’s (s amzn) 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.

pixels1 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.

22 Responses to “Vogue on Your eReader? New E-paper Tech Will Make It Happen”

    • Steve

      Unlike conventional color displays, which create a range of colors by combining varying levels of red (R), green (G) and blue (B) light, a color display that reflects ambient light would most likely be based on the four primary colors used in the printing industry–cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y) and black (K). Since these newer displays rely on an external source of light, they cannot create colors by adding anything to the light you see, instead, they subtract from it. While red, green and blue are the primary colors of additive color, in subractive color, they are secondary. It is their opposites that become the primary colors: cyan (-red), magenta (-green), yellow (-blue). Black (-white) is thrown in because creating black by combining cyan, magenta and yellow is not only inefficient, it also tends to produce a muddy-looking black instead of a pure black.

      A CMYK color display that uses ambient light is an exciting prospect for those of us who work in the graphic arts and printing industries. One of the most frustrating aspects of desktop publishing and digital pre-press has been the attempt to match colors produced on an RGB display with colors produced by a CMYK printer. A number of different color “matching” systems have been developed, but since the two methods of color have different overall palettes, you can really only match the overlapping colors. Other colors are “out of gamut” and have to be “mapped” to the closest available color, a compromise solution at best. A CMYK display would greatly reduce the disparity in colors. These displays would still have their inherent limitations and would not likely be able to display every color in the CMYK gamut (just as an RGB display cannot reproduce every color in the RBG gamut), but it would still be a huge improvement. Maybe in five to ten years I’ll be able to afford a high-quality CMYK display.

    • Well the current method of flooding the display with ink of one colour wouldn’t work if you needed a CMYK pattern. I guess they’ll have to use an inkjet printer to distribute the inks to each cell.

      • Steve

        It didn’t sound like the display would be limited to pigment of one color, only the individual cells themselves. If the cells were arranged in a pattern of alternating cyan, magenta, yellow and black cells (just as the pixels in an RGB monitor are arranged in a pattern of alternating red, green and blue subpixels), a wide range of colors could be reproduced by dithering the four colors. It doesn’t sound like they are quite there yet, though.

      • Yes, but if you watch the video of how they currently get the ink into the cells, you can see that they just flood the area with a single ink. So at the moment they have no ability to get different inks into each cell, thus limiting it to a single colour.

        Still, I’d be very happy with black and white if it improves upon e-ink’s speed and white level.

    • Dylan

      What do you mean can college kids afford this device?

      The kindle costs about $300, with books usually running about $10-$30.
      I spend about $800 to $1200 on required textbooks a year, and I buy them from amazon or other sellers not my college bookstore.

      The kindle will most likely be MORE economical, not to mention negating shipping times and costs as well as a heck of a lot easier to carry around (no more choosing which textbook to leave behind each day because of insufficient room in a bag).

      The question is can college students afford NOT to use this device?

  1. Andy O.

    This new technology sounds exciting. However, one point was slightly off — the current e-ink technology used in the Kindle and other e-readers also reflects light like this new technology. Thus, the Kindle’s display has the same power advantages as the new one discussed. The difference is rather that the newer technology may be brighter (reflect more ambient light) than the current generation and thus look more like paper.

  2. “it brings massive power efficiencies to displays compared to the e-ink technology used by Amazon’s Kindle”

    You mean *comparable* to. As written it sounds like the kindle has an inefficient transmissive display.