Paper that’s not paper
Screens that look as good as the real thing
By John “jaQ” Andrews firstname.lastname@example.org
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?