March 22, 2007

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Paper that’s not paper
Screens that look as good as the real thing
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If there’s one thing that computers can’t do right, it’s display text.

No, I haven’t finally gone off the deep end. Yes, computers have been displaying text far longer than they’ve been rendering 3D graphics and showing us little clicky icons. It’s not really the computers’ fault, either, that the text is so terrible — it’s the monitors’.

The backlit displays of monitors essentially shine light right into our eyes. That’s not good for them. Beyond that, computer monitors don’t have very good resolution, at least when it comes to displaying a large amount of small text. And they’re certainly not very cuddly in bed like a book is.

Electronic paper aims to change all that. Thin and flexible, electronic paper takes a different approach to showing you the goods. Instead of lighting up pixels, giving you a headache and requiring a constant stream of electricity, electronic paper uses electrically charged ink or dye to turn pixels black or white. Once the image is set, the electricity can be turned off, and the ink stays put.

Obviously, electronic paper won’t be replacing computer monitors any time soon. It’s not really meant for showing dynamic, constantly changing images like games, movies or graphical user interfaces. It’s mostly a monochrome technology, with only rudimentary color capability in some products.

E-books are the most obvious application of the technology. They’ve never taken off like they were supposed to, since e-book readers relied on the same backlit screens that make monitor text so tiring to read. A few readers with electronic paper screens hit the market last year, including the Sony Reader, iRex iLiad and STAReBOOK. They’re still not as personable as paperbacks, but they’re pretty much just as easy to read and can store a lot more information in the same amount of space.

Because they’re digital, e-book readers could be useful for subscription content as well, like magazines and newspapers. Rather than receiving a paper copy at one’s doorstep or an e-mail mixed in with spam and letters from family, a reader with a Wi-Fi or cellular connection could receive new issues over the air as soon as they’re published.

In fact, at least one new cell phone is using electronic paper instead of a traditional LCD screen. The Motophone F3 — available, alas, only in India — is a pretty basic phone, not supporting video or picture-taking or any of that nonsense, but its battery lasts forever because even with a clock running, it only has to power the main display once a minute.

Billboards might be a little ambitious, but smaller posted advertisements like posters can also run on electronic paper. Rather than trashing all the posters after a sale or event has ended, they’re reused with different information on them. Even something as simple as the price tags on store shelves: some stores have already moved to electric LED tags that can be updated instantaneously over the air, so using electronic paper instead of LEDs would be a quick change.

You could even “print” out directions or flyers without using up paper and ink, using even less electricity than a printer uses. Cool, huh?



3/8/2007 Use any file

3/1/2007 Audiobooks for free
2/22/2007 What's for sale today?
2/15/2007 Prints in your pocket
2/8/2007 Watch this
2/1/2007 How open is your source
1/25/2007 iPhone it now
1/18/2007 Simplify, simplify
1/11/2007 Vista time!
1/4/2007 Google killers?
12/28/2006 Tech that didn't happen
12/21/2006 Do not want
12/14/2006 Meet the new web
12/07/2006 Extreme price shopping
11/30/2006 They want what?
11/23/2006 Zat zany Zune
11/16/2006 Shop smart
11/9/2006 Your data's new home
11/2/2006 Hotkey heaven
10/26/2006 Computer to go
10/19/2006 Tech news roundup
10/12/2006 A different drummer
10/05/2006 Who needs TiVo?
09/28/2006 Disk drives without disks
09/21/2006 Movies, just click your mouse!
09/14/2006 Laptops for less
09/07/2006 GPS everywhere
08/31/2006 The printer dilemma
08/24/2006 A series of tubes
08/17/2006 More music, more places
08/10/2006 How big is your drive?
08/03/2006 It's a WiFi world
07/27/2006 Fancy a spot of memory?
07/20/2006 Under the sea
07/06/2006 eBaysic training
06/29/2006 You paid money for that?
06/22/2006 Processing ... processing ...
06/15/2006 C:\Run for the border
06/01/2006 The keyboard is mightier
05/25/2006 Geek phone home
05/18/2006 Super highway information
05/11/2006 How to host a site
05/04/2006 If they mated
04/27/2006 Apples to apples
04/20/2006 Flash uber-drives
04/13/2006 Web site, by you
04/06/2006 Ayyy, jaQ's right!
03/30/2006 Choose wirelessly
03/23/2006 Tax programs cometh
03/16/2006 And the Spammie goes to...
03/09/2006 Take in the Vista
03/02/2006 Cheap moviemaking
02/23/2006 Go directly to iJail
02/16/2006 Will you stamp your e-mail?
02/09/2006 War of the machines
02/02/2006 Faster than a speeding packet

01/26/2006 Free software made simple
01/19/2006 The Worst of CES
01/12/2006 Radio you
01/05/2006 Making Movies
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