Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Future of E-Paper: Automatic Labels, Better Billboards

    The Future of E-Paper: Automatic Labels, Better Billboards
  • In the first critical examination of the present and future of e-paper, researchers have outlined the prospects for applications like flexible displays, color e-readers and electronic labels.
  • In the first critical examination of the present and future of e-paper, researchers have outlined the prospects for applications like flexible displays, color e-readers and electronic labels.E-readers—like Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook—are now being used nearly everywhere, from your local subway to outer space. In June, Amazon.com reported that ebook sales had topped the sales of hardcover books in its online store. And technological innovations—like foldable electronic paper—are promising to make e-readers more advanced than ever.

    Amazon.com's Kindle is just the beginning for e-paper.
    This month, the Journal of the Society for Information Display published the first-ever paper to critically examine current and future possibilities for electronic paper. The paper addresses many exciting applications for e-paper, including flexible displays and electronic labels. Here are some key topics addressed by the paper.
    E-Labels
    Electronic shelf labels (ESLs) allow businesses such as grocery stores to quickly and efficiently update product pricing and information. Such labels are already being used experimentally in Europe and on the West Coast, but the researchers feel that this technology could soon become widespread.
    Not only would ESLs save businesses the time of manually changing labels, but they could also help save power. "The electronic labels basically only consume significant power when they are changed," the paper's lead author Jason Heikenfeld, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Cincinnati, said in a statement. "When it's a set, static message and price, the e-shelf label is consuming such minimal power—thanks to reflective display technology—that it's highly economical and effective."
    In addition to e-labels, e-paper could also allow for better business signs, since it uses much less power than traditional LCD displays.

    Grocery stores and other businesses could save money and energy using electronic labels (source: RFID Journal). 
    E-Reading in Color
    Color e-readers are already expected to hit the market sometime this year, but consumers should be cautious about buying the first generation. In the paper, Heikenfeld warns that these displays will be less vibrant than on other electronics, like tablet computers.
    "The pursuit of bright and saturated color," write the researchers, "presents the largest R&D challenge for e-paper." Still, the paper argues that future research will likely give way to brightly colored displays with high-speed functions, such as video and web browsing.

    Lower Power, Higher Function
    Unlike other electronics, such as the iPad, e-paper displays require much less energy to run. Within the next two years, researchers hope to create a device with similar functionality as tablet computers, but which uses less power. A video demo of this kind of device can be seen here.
    "The color on this first-generation low-power, high-function e-device won't be as bright as what you get today from LCD (liquid crystal display) devices (like the iPad) that consume a lot of power," said Heikenfeld. "The color on the new low-power, high-function e-device will be about one third as bright as the color you commonly see on printed materials. Researchers, like those of us at UC, will continue to work to produce the Holy Grail of an e-device: bright color, high function (video and web browsing) with low power usage."
    Better Billboards
    Today's digital billboards—which are LCD displays—consume massive amounts of energy, rendering them expensive and environmentally unfriendly. E-paper could dramatically improve these roadside advertisements.
    "We have the technology that would allow these digital billboards to operate by simply reflecting ambient light, just like conventional printed billboards do," said Heikenfeld. "That means low power usage and good visibility for the displays even in bright sunlight. However, the color doesn't really sizzle yet, and many advertisers using billboards will not tolerate a washed-out color."
    Roll-Up E-Newspapers
    Within three to five years, the first foldable e-displays could hit the market, most likely from Polymer Vision in the Netherlands. The researchers say that monochrome displays will come first, but that color could quickly follow. The "flexible/rollable [display] presents an opportunity that some e-paper technologies are well-positioned to serve," they write.
    Other promising advancements and future applications are discussed in the full paper, which can be read on the Journal's Website. Others authors of the paper were Paul Drzaic of Drzaic Consulting Services, Jong-Souk (John) Yeo of Hewlett-Packard's Imaging and Printing Group, and Tim Koch of Hewlett-Packard.

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