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Saturday, 8 September, 2001, 08:06 GMT 09:06 UK
E-paper moving closer
e-paper developed by e-ink
E-paper: Electrical charge creates a dark or white patch
By BBC Click Online's Richard Taylor

Traditional paper has largely survived the test of time but now it is facing a new challenge from its electronic equivalent.

Electronic paper has been one of the technology world's holy grails for more than two decades and the prospect of using it as a substitute for the real thing is closer than ever.

Communication by way of the printed word has been a fact of life for centuries. And even though modern communication has come a long way, paper is still ubiquitous.

Over the past couple of decades the technology world has been searching for a way to manufacture electronic ink and paper.

Electrical charges

Two American companies seem to have cracked the problem. Gyricon Media and the E-ink Corporation have developed similar minute capsules, filled with a dark solution and laden with white particles.

E-ink/IBM prototype
E-paper now shows promise
The idea is that when an electrical charge is applied, the particles will move from one side of the capsule to the other, thereby creating a dark or white patch.

"We've got three unique items here," E-ink's director of technology, Dr Paul Drzaic told Click Online.

"We've the electronic ink material which is the part that's flashing black and white. We've got plastic electronics which is controlling the e-ink and telling it what image to put on and we've put them together to work on this flexible plastic sheet."

"This is really ground-breaking stuff because this is the first time e-ink has been proven to work with plastic electronics on a flexible display and this is an important first step in our vision of what an electronic paper product could look like in the future."

In-store displays

The first commercial application for this technology has been through the development of electronic signs such as in-store displays connected via a wireless link.

We have to treat each development cautiously. I don't think we want to jump in with both feet

Jeremy Ettinghausen, Penguin e-book editor
The message on any or all of the signs can be changed remotely simply at the push of a button.

"That's just the beginning," says chief scientist at Xerox, John Seely Brown.

"You can actually think about there being a book now because you can actually put some electronics on the back of this thing and it becomes a display. And you can build an entire book out of this material."

Caution and excitement

But the publishing world is undecided about e-paper. Even publishers who are moving into the hi-tech arena with e-books reserve judgement on e-paper.

"We have to treat each development cautiously. I don't think we want to jump in with both feet," says Penguin e-book editor, Jeremy Ettinghausen.

"E-ink is obviously something very exciting. One of the principal objections people voice about e-books is that they don't like reading off a screen so I can imagine a device that looks and acts exactly like paper would be something that would be very attractive.

"But I think it's something that we'll wait to see how the market evolves and how the technology evolves."

The success or otherwise of this electronic equivalent to paper will depend in part on finding what is called the killer application.

What will e-paper be used for? Taking the place of newspapers, magazines and books, or replacing shop signs? Until that question is answered, we will not be discarding the real thing quite yet.

Click Online is on BBC World on Thursday at 1930, Friday at 0430, Saturday at 0030 and 0630, Sunday at 1030, Monday at 0330, 0730 and 1630, Tuesday at 0030 and 1030 and Wednesday at 1330. All times GMT.

See also:

16 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Technology promises glowing books
21 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Smaller is better
23 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
E-paper moves a step nearer
20 Aug 01 | New Media
Penguin enters e-book market
01 Mar 01 | Entertainment
The world in your hands
04 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
From paper to the internet
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