Electronic Ink: The Newspaper of the Future?

If you’re any kind of print media junky -and if you’re a writer you should be-then an emerging technology called electronic ink may very soon relieve your paper glut, get the ink-stains off your fingers, and give those recurring paper cuts a chance to finally heal.

Imagine a newspaper with ever-changing pages which update after you read them, or as the stories are written. Imagine one paperback-book-sized device, which holds dozens or hundreds of books and receives all your magazine subscriptions the moment they are published. Imagine all of this using very little power and not straining your eyes like a computer monitor does. Imagine it all, and you’ll begin to understand why content providers are so excited. Gadget manufacturers like Sony are soon to begin testing the waters for just such a device in the United States.

The concept for e ink -sometimes called electronic paper-was first developed by Xerox way back in the 1970’s, but the technology has come a long way. Essentially eink works by printing thousands of microcapsules containing different colored particles onto a thin film (or any surface, eventually). By running a different type of current through each capsule, a certain color of particle will rise to the surface, thus becoming visible to the eye. Once a capsule’s color has been chosen, it stays that way, needing no additional power until the user wants to “turn the page,” thus necessitating the capsule’s color to change.

Today, with investors such as Philips, Intel and the Hearst Corporation, E Ink Corporation is the clear leader in the field. Soon-to-be-shipping devices from Lexar, Sony and Ambient Devices all incorporate E ink Corp.’s tech.

The Sony device is by far the most interesting. The darling of January’s Consumer Electronics Show, the Sony Reader is set to debut sometime this spring. While Americans have seen and scoffed at Ebook readers in the past, the addition of E Ink’s technology here is what Sony hopes will be the kicker. According to those who have seen it in person, it’s as easy and comfortable to read as paper, is just a half-inch thick, and with a battery that facilitates some 7,500 page turns, “readers can devour a dozen bestsellers plus War and Peace without ever having to recharge.” Sony claims the device will be able to display PDF documents, websites and the popular RSS feeds used by blogs and newspapers as well.

At an expected price of $300 to $400, many might assume it’s a device destined to land dead in the water. But in a world where similarly priced iPods fly off the shelves faster than Steve Jobs can make them, anything’s possible. If Sony can make electronic book purchasing – at their Connect website – as intuitive and appealing as iTunes, they may just start a phenomenon. However the failure of their last Ebook reader in Japan, largely due to restrictive copy protection or Digital Rights Management (DRM) of book files has created many skeptics.

Whether Sony, or any number of other electronic manufacturers create the first ebook device that takes off, we’ll likely be seeing electronic ink technology everywhere in the near future. In a world more and more concerned with the environment, a device that can single-handedly replace all books, newspapers and magazines, while offering the convenience of having them all in one place, is very enticing. Add to that a screen that’s as easy to read as your morning paper and requires very little power, with some “it” factor, it will eventually become irresistible.

E Ink’s vision is to eventually create RadioPaper, which according to their website, will be “a lightweight, flexible display with the readability of ink on paper but with the added benefit of digital technology to download newspaper headlines or a best-selling novel at the user’s command.” It might sound like science fiction, but the company has already signed with the partners needed to develop it, and have trademarked the name. It might be years off, but it’s definitely in the pipeline.

The only real question is which company will be the first out the door with the device that makes us embrace electronic paper like we’ve embraced electronic music. One thing’s for certain: when this technology does take off, the trees will certainly be thankful.

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